One Writer’s Garden

In Jackson, Mississippi, preservationists are restoring the verdant retreat that sustained novelist Eudora Welty

On a recent morning in Jackson, Mississippi, the garden where novelist Eudora Welty once muddied her knees, fussed over camellias and cultivated a lifetime of stories hums with life. Bees hover over bright disks of zinnias, among spires of salvia and along a purple border of asters. As a breeze flutters the morning glories, a black swallowtail lands nearby. Did Welty, one of America's most celebrated and influential writers, discover her muse here?

That's precisely the kind of question that has inspired the horticulturists, historians and volunteers who have been restoring this green haven since the mid-1990s. "You know this world sparked her imagination," says English professor Suzanne Marrs, Welty's biographer, friend and neighbor. "And that may be the most important thing. What was she observing that sparked the stories, and why?"

Born in Jackson in 1909, Welty was an unflinching observer of life whose ability to penetrate the hearts and souls of a wild array of characters revealed a fearless imagination. Her impeccable attention to detail, whether in dialogue or description, grounded her work. Welty's short stories won six O. Henry Awards, and in 1973 she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Optimist's Daughter. Over her 50-year career, nearly everything she wrote emerged from the house at 1119 Pinehurst Street in Jackson, where she worked in her second-floor bedroom overlooking the garden. "Eudora never wanted central air [conditioning] in the home," says her niece Mary Alice White, director of the Eudora Welty House. "She liked the fresh air, the open windows, to smell the fragrances."

"Children, like animals, use all their senses to discover the world," Welty wrote in her 1984 memoir, One Writer's Beginnings. "Then artists come along and discover it the same way, all over again." She added that "the outside world is the vital component to my inner life....My imagination takes its strength and guides its direction from what I see and hear and learn and feel and remember of my living world."

Her garden was a big part of that living world. Designed by her mother, Chestina, a passionate amateur horticulturist, it bordered the English Tudor-style house on the north, south and east sides. On three-quarters of an acre, the garden wasn't fancy or big. Trellises, hedges and borders divided the garden into small, homey "rooms." Chestina—as well as Eudora, her apprentice and self-proclaimed "yard boy"—adored it and agonized over it. Eudora's special love was camellias; she nurtured 30 varieties, and when she went to New York City to meet with her editors, Chestina would tack the delicate blooms to a cloth, box it up and send the parcel to her daughter by train.

The garden became an abiding source of inspiration for Welty, showing up throughout her stories. "It was an important source of imagery for her," Marrs says. "She thought of gardening as a metaphor for all sorts of things, like an attempt to find order and structure and meaning."

But when she reached her 80s (her mother had died in 1966), Welty could no longer maintain the garden. She had lost the "yard man" she'd had for 40 years, and "the honeysuckle and the poison ivy had just taken over everything," says Susan Haltom, a horticulturist specializing in historic garden design and preservation, who has overseen the restoration since it began in 1994. By then, the year Haltom first met Welty, the writer had deeded her home to the state as a literary museum (the property is now administered by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History). "We went into her living room," Haltom recalls, "and she sat in this big blue chair and said, 'I can't bear to look out the window and see what has become of my mother's garden.'"

The initial idea was simply to help out "Miss Welty," as most everyone around here calls her. But as Haltom reread Welty's stories, she realized how much the garden had infused Welty's writing, and she suggested that the grounds should also be considered in the creation of the museum. The department agreed. Haltom chose to restore the garden to the period from 1925 to 1945, when it reached its full potential, and when Welty's career was blossoming as well.

Haltom, in consultation with Welty, started digging up old borders lined in concrete rubble and stone, revealing original plants like the 1920s day lilies and some of the camellias, finding remnants of Chestina's rose garden. Haltom pored over photographs Welty provided—the writer, also an accomplished photographer, had documented the garden from the roof in the 1930s. Haltom also consulted historic-garden specialists, researching plants grown at the time and locating cultivars from that period. "I can't go put in modern pansies or cosmos and think they're going to look the same," she says. "So I have to search out the actual plants that were grown then." The bearded irises on the perennial border, for instance, are pre-1945 cultivars donated by the Historic Iris Preservation Society.

After Eudora's death at 92 in 2001, Mary Alice White found Chestina's 1930s gardening journal, and there it was—the garden layout, complete with plant names and locations. And White and Haltom continue to find more details in Eudora Welty's letters and notes. "Sometimes she would write someone and say, 'I just ordered a General George Washington,' or whatever," Haltom says. "It's so much fun. It's a treasure hunt. And I'm not only trying to find the clues as to what they are, I'm trying to locate them in nurseries and to find out if anyone still grows them, and I'm propagating these for the future."

The garden opened to the public in April 2004 (the house is not scheduled to open until April 2006), and though lovely, it's still a work in progress, true to its original intent. It's a place of bent backs and dirty knees, where what one is seeking is not perfection or distance, but an honest view of real life—a view the writer who loved this garden was so gifted at giving the rest of the world.

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