Friday, August 5, 2011

Rhoda's magical realm


In the late 1980's, an Atlanta garden designer who loved looking for out-of-the-way nurseries was driving near Griffin, Ga., when she spotted a rusted sign that read "Meadowlark Nursery."  Deciding she would take a chance and see if the business was still going, she turned off the busy highway into a narrow, unpaved lane.

"I felt like Alice falling into Wonderland," she said.  "Here was one of the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen, completely unexpected and hidden from view.  I couldn't imagine what the story was behind it."

What the garden designer had stumbled onto was the garden that Rhoda Ingram has been planting and refining since 1946.  Rhoda grew up in a gardening family in New England and Florida and married a Georgia man whose family owned a 340 acre farm.  With no professional guidance and only her "innate sense of how things should go," she transformed some 40+ acres of former cotton fields into a parklike landscape that is actually a series of gardens within a garden.

Rhoda's first efforts concentrated on creating gardens around several cottages originally built for family members.  Each house was different and had its own distinct garden, including Rhoda's own white clapboard house which is surrounded by thousands of boxwoods and looks out over rolling lawns.  Dogwoods, deciduous magnolias, azaleas, flowering shrubs, bulbs and roses are planted by the hundreds throughout the compound which is intersected by charming boxwood-lined lanes that connect the cottages.

 In the early 1990's, Rhoda estimated that she had some 30,000 boxwoods, most of which came from her failed nursery attempt in the 1970's (the advent of the big box stores which sold cheaper box hollies and ligustrums cut into the sales of more her more refined English boxwoods; also, people were not yet interested in the newer plants she had discovered on trips abroad).   Since that time, she's rooted thousands more boxwoods and used them to create even more gardens around the property.  In the 1960's, she also began collecting trees after a visit to Kew Gardens in England and now has a mature arboretum with many rare species.

The scene pictured above is a recent addition to Rhoda's gardens and illustrates her love of classic design.  When I first went there in 1989, most all of the gardens were in front of her house and around the cottages.  There was only a greenhouse in the open fields in back.  Now, that several-acre area includes all sorts of gardens, pathways (some informal), allees, orchards, a lap pool and many secret nooks and crannies and narrow passages.   

I am always fascinated by someone who can look at a blank space and imagine a garden there.  Rhoda has done it hundreds of times over.  It would take months to explore all the areas she's created and take in the breadth of what she's accomplished.

Although Rhoda now uses a walker to get around, she still directs her grandson in creating yet more gardens within her magical realm.  The gardens are available for weddings and special events.  To see more of Rhoda's design work, visit their Web site:   http://www.meadowlarkgardens.net/