Snippets from a Two-Time Garden Day Survivor

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The Question
It was May a year ago. With eyes glazed and jaw dropped, my mouth mumbled, “What? You’re inviting us to open our new home and garden for Garden Day?”

Lynchburg’s enthusiastic event co-chairman Courtney Alford repeated her invitation. In a split second, her contagious smile melted my guard and “Well, sure!” slipped out. It would take a tougher woman than I to say “no” to my friend and fellow Hillside Garden Club member, Courtney.

Besides, our club serves as local event co-sponsor of Historic Garden Week in Virginia, along with Lynchburg Garden Club. Both clubs are among the 47 statewide member clubs of the Garden Club of Virginia (GCV) committed to a common purpose and legacy.

The event highlights Virginia’s hospitality, history, and beauty, and proceeds fund the restoration and preservation of more than 40 historic public gardens and landscapes statewide, including Point of Honor here in Lynchburg, as well as a research fellowship program and a GCV centennial project with Virginia State Parks. Meg Clement, state Chairman for this 84th annual event, reported that “approximately 26,000 attendees across the state contribute economically and culturally. Recent surveys indicate that over
$11 million is spent across Virginia…with a cumulative impact of $425 million over the past 45 years.”

And the GCV members have a track record for impeccable organization and support of homeowners on the tour. So, of course, I’d do my part. Commitment made, I had less than a year to prepare.

Then It Sinks In…
Soon my own questions came flooding: Why would Garden Day visitors want to tour a second-floor condominium? (I couldn’t recall a condo ever being on the tour.) Will our small communal garden sport anything but weeds on April 25th? (I hadn’t yet seen it in spring.)
Will our Homeowners Association approve? (I didn’t know my new neighbors.)

Oh, and the Big Question: Will we have time for order to arise from the chaos of our move from our farm in Bedford County to our new home in The Woodstock? (We hadn’t even scheduled our move-in date yet!)

I wasn’t willing to concede being overwhelmed even though my mind was loaded to capacity with figuring out what to do with our accumulation of 43 years of treasures and junk that decades of living, loving, and space at the farm encouraged. With time to Garden Day (G-Day) ticking away, we stepped up our game with the help of our sons and my sister Jan Dow, who hauled a truckload to Richmond to distribute to family there.

With only Tim, Mama Cat, and me living under our roof, I counted on preparation being less stressful than the first time I opened my home and garden for G-Day in 1985 while managing a house full of teenagers, a four-year-old, and a menagerie of dogs and cats.

That was in Danville’s 1886 Penn-Wyatt House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This time it’s the 1917 Woodstock, designed by Stanhope Johnson and a Lynchburg Historical Foundation Merit Award recipient. Knowing that historic places with architectural appeal hold their own on Garden Day and draw the crowd reduced pressure even more.

Besides, we’re a foot stool and lap robe kind of family, comfortable surrounded by family memorabilia, including collections of folk as well as fine art from around the world. Some may consider our treasures tchotchke or worse, but we don’t have it in us to stage décor à la Architectural Digest or keep up with trend-setting decorators. So, we were ready to buckle down and prepare.

First things first, I appealed to our Homeowners Association for our neighbors’ blessing—and was warmly embraced.

Just the spark I needed to start hustling to place furniture, hang pictures, and figure out what to do with the garden.

Taking on an Established Garden
The idea of opening the Woodstock’s communal garden was daunting. I was still grieving my beloved farm garden we’d left behind and didn’t intend to start over with this one. But Meg Laughon, Elizabeth Hutter, and other trusted GCV friends convinced me that it had good bones and great potential. They, along with several new neighbors, garden guru Don Lee, and the Woodstock’s own professional landscaper Kenneth Robertson helped us take inventory, appreciate the work of previous gardeners throughout the Woodstock’s history, and consider what could and should be done to spiff up for G-Day.

We learned that previous residents were master gardeners who popped plants in every spot possible, especially plants found on sale that they nurtured into fine specimens. Ah, my kind of gardeners—more interested in rescuing plants than presenting a grand and cohesive landscape design.

Our feeling of kinship with the past century of Woodstock gardeners continued to grow. They’d planted and nurtured many of the same trees, shrubs, and perennials that we’d planted and loved at our farm, including Virginia favorites—magnolia, dogwood, maple, crepe myrtle, azalea, wisteria, lilac, snowball viburnum, tree and herbaceous peonies, and iris. A bonus was lovely mature camellias, which I’d never grown successfully before. My gardener’s heart began to beat a little faster.

I knew from my previous historic garden that when restoring an already established garden, it’s best to observe it a full year in every season before making radical changes—except for the obvious immediate tasks of removing dead, diseased or radically overgrown plant material.

Kenneth and crew removed dead tree limbs, shaped up shrubs, cleaned out debris, and started tackling a huge overgrowth of English Ivy, accumulated Magnolia leaves, and the dreaded poison ivy—which drove me out of the weeding business after a couple of wicked early spring bouts of allergic reaction.

Yet there was still much work to be done. The flower beds remained scruffy with winter and early spring bedhead, and I couldn’t tell whether some sticks were new-to-me shrubs just waiting to flesh out or last year’s perennial debris. So, patience was the order of the day.

As spring unfurled, the risk of frost diminished daily, neighbors pitched in to fill pots with boxwoods and plant annuals, and Tim and I transplanted tree and herbaceous peonies, hellebores, and more from the farm and planted a few additional varieties of Japanese maples. By then we were hooked.

Behind the Scenes
Courtney and her counterpart, local event co-chairman Lea Barksdale, epitomized GCV grace, organization and support.

They ably led an army of volunteers who aced every planning detail, including organizing the tour path, three shifts of hostesses to cover every critical juncture, and police presence. Flower chairmen, our cousins Patsy Wilkinson and Carter Bendall, orchestrated a committee of talented arrangers who created a profusion of gorgeous arrangements, upholding Lynchburg’s reputation for flower arrangements that put our G-Day on the map.

Club members answered questions, brought meals and gifts, and always showed great appreciation while I perked along happily hanging pictures, planting the garden, and enjoying stories by other Garden Day survivors. Elizabeth Hutter told me one of her garden’s matched pair of wisteria arches looked dead and dreadful the year she opened her garden for the tour. Her solution? Cut off blossoms from the other profusely blooming arch, put them in water tubes, and tape them on the barren plant. No one was the wiser, and the slow bloomer took stage center a week or so later, of course. Such are the vagaries of nature and tricks of the trade.

Another friend requested that closet doors remain closed.

Looking for the bathroom, a hostess accidently opened one of the off-limits closets to discover it piled high with sports equipment and other evidence of a full life. Facing the interloper was a big sign: “Don’t judge! I bet your closet looks like this too.”

Tales of innovative solutions to occasional G-Day glitches speak of devoted husbands schlepping guests around traffic snarls and of keeping homeowners’ floors clean and dry during pouring rain by issuing shoe booties or plastic bags at the front door, collecting them at the back door, and running them around front to reuse. I figured that no matter what the challenge, these ladies are up to it and can turn it into an amusing story!

Countdown
Glitches for us piled up the final week before G-Day: The front-room chair that for decades passed for shabby-chic suddenly degenerated into tattered-derelict. Window washing, an estimated 2-day project, turned into a complicated 5-day project. Touch-up paint didn’t match. Our old HVAC system chose an 84-degree day to die. And, the big one: Tim’s health took a turn for the worse.

Thanks to re-upholstery magic by interior decorator friend Marjorie Grabeel, multiple trips to paint stores by Love Painting’s Kameo Hunter, and rushed HVAC delivery and installation by Wooldridge Heating and Air, we slid in under the wire on G-Day eve. The chair arrived and looked great, windows were spotless and gleaming, and paint touch-ups were drying to match the walls. Half of the new HVAC was running in time to keep flowers and arrangers from wilting, with final installation complete by 9:30 p.m. Fears of G-Day visitors fainting from the heat evaporated, and Tim’s ticker was ticking. So, bring it on!

We even collected our own tale to add to G-Day lore:

As “Arranging Day” (G-Day eve) progressed, one of the arrangers commented, “You have the nicest men working for you. They were so helpful in bringing our card tables, buckets of flowers, and bags of tools upstairs for us. Did you bring them in town from your farm to help us?” It took me a minute to figure it out: Uh…no! She hadn’t noticed the pocket stitching on their shirts, “Wooldridge.”

The Big Day Arrived…
…along with chilly drizzle and rain. As hostesses reported for duty and we were leaving for the day, I flipped the AC off and gas logs on. After all, that’s what we do for a cozy day at home.

My parting words were, “Forget the plastic shoe bags. These rugs survived decades of living on our Bedford County farm with kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, dogs, cats—and red clay, food, and wine. Some are even welcoming their second Garden Day. A little rain won’t hurt.” And after 1,424 guests filed through that day, I was right. Tim and I—and our rugs, home, and garden—are all happy survivors.

My garden-loving friends know me well. We weren’t ready to say “good-bye” to gardening. The Woodstock garden and the community that shares and cares for it had found a place in our hearts. So, I’ll continue transplanting peonies, iris, hellebores, and my great-great-grandmother’s daffodils from their most recent home at the farm to The Woodstock. I know they’ll bloom where they’re planted. As will we.

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