Voices carry across Sherry Hodge’s backyard garden in Cashiers, North Carolina, where giant terrace steps lead down through lush white hydrangea blossoms, dark red dahlias, and sunny zinnias before landing in a meadow that overlooks Lake Glenville. “I’ve heard fishermen from their boats out there going, ‘Look at that garden!’ when they see me cutting flowers,” Hodge says. “I laugh and flex my muscles at them, but I didn’t build this on my own.”
Hodge and her husband have for decades spent summers in these mountains, driving up from their home in St. Augustine, Florida. Raised in a farming family, Hodge wanted to plant a mountainside garden, but the hilly terrain intimidated her. Then, as a birthday gift to herself some eight years ago, she called on a team of local landscape pros who knew how to navigate sharp slopes. “A rule in my family is: Spend your money locally, always,” she says.
She hired an entirely Cashiers-based team: John Warren, to assess the property and install the design as landscape contractor; Wayne Miller for grading and stonework; and Mary Palmer Dargan, a landscape architect whose work spans much of the Southeast as well as projects in Europe and the U.S. Virgin Islands. “We were facing this steep slope that they didn’t know what to do with,” Dargan recalls, “so we created a series of terraces that cascade through the woods.”
The team brought in Tennessee Crab Orchard sandstone, quarried from the Cumberland Plateau, as landing pads and steps. “We wanted to make the garden friendly,” Dargan says, “with slabs that are big and wide, but not too tall, so you can pause in between each step.” With the framework set, Hodge turned to the local gardener Amanda Morgan for advice on plants that would thrive in the cool mountain air.
“We have a hydrangea that does well here called Little Lime, which fades from a beautiful green to light pink,” Morgan says, describing how certain hydrangeas tend to survive a late mountain spring better than showy blue and purple varieties. “I sectioned the garden out by color, so that there’s color moving from one area to the next. It goes from pink to white to purple to lemon yellow flowing over the terraces.” She planted indigo salvia, white flowering tobacco, and a type of golden creeping zinnia called Million Suns. “You can be walking through the garden and take a different path on each level, so that you have a whole different garden wherever you stand.”
The stars of the property bloom in late summer and early fall. “Dahlias,” Morgan says. “I’m crazy about dahlias, so we went overboard. You cannot have too many dahlias in a mountain garden.” The leggy flowers come in just about every shade—crimson, cream, pink, purple, yellow—and Morgan spends the winter hunting for new varieties to plant each spring. One year, she discovered an exotic dahlia called My Hero that produced huge blooms of deep magenta and white. “I always stagger the dahlias around and toward the back of a bed,” Morgan says, “because they’re so tall and a beautiful backdrop.”
Steps outside the house, Hodge perches on the top terrace each morning, settling into the private nook she created from a rustic faux bois chair and table. “I’m in my slippers with a cup of coffee,” she says, “and I always take my clippers with me just in case I see something I can’t live without that day.” An armful of hydrangeas for a dinner party, perhaps, a dozen nasturtium blooms to decorate a chocolate cake, one striking dahlia for family coming to stay in the guesthouse, or even a bridal bouquet for a casual wedding. “We have many friends who have lost their spouses but have found love later in life,” Hodge says. “Getting to do their flowers from my own garden is an honor and a tribute to friendship.”
The team who built Hodge’s cutting garden kept her love of floral arranging in mind, choosing lush greenery that both fills out the hillside and makes for beautiful bouquets. “We planted Queen Anne’s lace and purple yarrow, and lady’s mantle with big fat leaves,” Hodge says. “I love the texture of the lamb’s ears and the creeping Jenny that just pops down the steps.” She, too, breezily pops down those graceful steps, her English cocker spaniel, Willie, trailing along as she descends into flowers.