Marty Whaley Adams Cornwell can still recall the day nearly twenty years ago when her eighty-six-year-old mother, Emily Whaley, had to get up before a crowd at a literary luncheon and speak after the renowned Irish-American author Frank McCourt. “Damn, I hope this goes well,” her salty-tongued mother said.
Candid and uncensored, Whaley wowed the crowd just as her book, Mrs. Whaley and Her Charleston Garden, would soon captivate the world. Both a memoir and a primer on how to cultivate a life with your hands deep in the dirt, this slender volume brought thousands of visitors annually to visit Mrs. Whaley’s narrow backyard in Charleston’s historic district. She lived just a year past the book’s publication, astounded by her sudden fame.
Cornwell has since been the caretaker of the 30-by-100-foot garden. Like her mother, who often replanted flower beds and figured out ways to make the most of the neighbors’ trees, she hasn’t hesitated to make changes. Recently she closed the garden to visitors and gave the new head gardener Paul Saylors (who replaced Junior Robinson, a fifty-year veteran who retired) carte blanche to rethink this famous plot of cultivated earth. Saylors came to Charleston partly because of his infatuation with Mrs. Whaley’s book. He learned its core lesson — that the spirit of a garden lives on through the hands of the gardener, even if the garden changes hands.