In the Garden

A Tennessee Gardener’s Hydrangea Sanctuary

How the slow-blooming flower finally turned the head of Leo McGee

Photo: Abigail Bobo

Leo McGee in his Cookeville garden.

Leo McGee has never been ambivalent about hydrangeas. When he was a boy, his dislike for the beautiful but temperamental blooms veered toward outright hate. “I did yard work for extra money growing up,” he says. “Down in Arkansas, the weather was so hot; ten minutes after I’d water the things, they’d dry up again. I even smelled the blooms, and there was no fragrance! So I said to myself: I will never have a hydrangea in my yard.” 

For decades, McGee kept that boyhood promise. But a few years after he and his wife, Gloria, moved from Nashville to Cookeville, Tennessee, to take jobs at Tennessee Tech, he found himself at Johnson’s Nursery & Garden Center, standing in front of a tempting display of three-gallon Nikko Blue hydrangeas. Out of principle, he wandered around the nursery for forty-five minutes before he eventually gave in to the impulse, taking two plants. He carefully transferred them to his backyard—and waited. The cotton-candy blue puffballs didn’t appear again for three years, which should have validated his previous feelings; instead, it sparked his competitive spirit. 

photo: Abigail Bobo
A Hayes Starburst hydrangea.

A former college athlete—McGee played lineman and cornerback for Philander Smith College in Arkansas—he couldn’t back down from the challenge the hydrangea presented. “I’d drive all over town, and I’d see these big blue flowers, and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong,” he says. “Finally, it occurred to me that they weren’t getting enough sun.” Opting to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, he waited until Gloria was traveling for work and then felled a handful of the big silver maples that shaded the bulk of their backyard. And while he wouldn’t recommend this move to other husbands, it worked. His hydrangea bloomed. Gloria eventually forgave him; she even grew to enjoy the grunt work like deadheading and pruning. 

photo: Abigail Bobo
Gloria and Leo McGee enjoying the fruits of their labor.

For the next thirty-five years, McGee read everything he could get his hands on, archiving favorite articles and books on hydrangeas. He befriended local growers and hybridizers in nearby McMinnville, who introduced him to new cultivars and hybrids such as Ruby Slippers, a cone-shaped oakleaf hydrangea and Gloria’s favorite, which opens white and quickly turns pink before strengthening to a deep rose. Nicknamed the Nursery Capital of the World, McMinnville is home to three-hundred-plus growing operations, some more than a century old. 

photo: Abigail Bobo
McGee clips a Ruby Slippers oakleaf hydrangea.

Today, McGee’s living collection includes around four hundred individual hydrangea plants in at least fifty varieties—most of which come from hybridizers living within a hundred-mile radius of his garden. Neat rows of boxwoods, a few ferns, a handful of hostas in the garden’s shadiest spots, and a massive magnolia are the garden’s only other real inhabitants. McGee keeps meticulous notes of what works and what doesn’t and reports back to his network of growers, who have come to rely on his expertise when determining which new hybrids will sell well. He also has a “hydrangea graveyard” of failed experiments piled up in the garden’s back right corner. “It’s fun, but it does take some skill to figure out where the hydrangeas should be placed,” he says. “You almost have to know them as you know your own children.” 

photo: Abigail Bobo
A Twist-N-Shout hydrangea.

But children often surprise us, and despite hydrangeas’ place atop the hierarchy of favored Southern blooms—right up there with camellias, azaleas, and magnolias—the way they are landscaped in New England inspired the garden’s incredible visual punch. On a family trip to Nantucket, McGee was delighted to discover the dense, bloom-heavy banks of hydrangeas surrounding the island’s cedar-shake cottages. Back home, he began crowding his own Tennessee hydrangeas to create similar showstopping hedges bursting with delicate pink lacecaps, brilliant blue mopheads, and snow-white cones the size of a forearm—from early June through early October. More summer days than not, the McGees can be found in the cooling shade of their screened porch, relishing the fruits of decades of labor. “We don’t count the hours or years,” Leo says. “If you really enjoy something, it’s not work.”   

photo: Abigail Bobo
A bank of McGee’s prized hydrangeas in full bloom.

This article appears in the June/July 2020 issue of  Garden & Gun. Start your subscription here or give a gift subscription here.