As a horticulturist friend taught me, gardeners in the 1920s often divided their expansive plots into garden rooms, and so did Chestina Welty, Eudora Welty’s mother.
By Chestina’s design, three arbors mark the entrances to an upper garden, with its irises, daylilies, and other perennials. One arbor is covered with wisteria (the favorite of Eudora’s father), another twined with the ‘Silver Moon’ climbing rose. The third, sporting a pink ‘Dr. Van Fleet’ climbing rose, serves as a doorway between the upper garden and the rose garden (roses were the flowers Chestina most cherished). Beyond lies a landscaped woodland where bearded iris, wild blue phlox, and ferns grow beneath oak, pine, and dogwood trees, and where Eudora’s brothers built a clubhouse. By the mid-1930s, the clubhouse had become the province of Eudora and her friends, who renamed it the “penthouse” or “house of passions pent.” There, at day’s end, they talked about New York plays and operas, put up photographs of actors and divas, and drank whiskey purchased from Prohibition-era Mississippi bootleggers.
Eudora worked long hours in the garden. Though she called herself “my mother’s yard man,” she did more than follow Chestina’s directions. She introduced camellias into the front and side yards, and worked on grafting them; sought out cultivars like ‘Berenice Boddy’, ‘Miss Leila’, ‘Debutante’, and ‘Empress’; and drew a diagram indicating where more than thirty varieties would be placed in an evergreen border. Each year while the camellias blossomed, she cut blooms, floated them in shallow dishes, and shared them with friends. Whenever Eudora came to dinner at my house, these were the hostess gifts she brought.
For Eudora, labor in the garden was almost mystical in its rewards. As she told her agent Diarmuid Russell, “Every evening when the sun is going down and it is cool enough to water the garden, and it is all quiet except for the locusts in great waves of sound, and I stand still in one place for a long time putting water on the plants, I feel something new — that is all I can say — as if my will went out of me, as if I had a stubbornness and it was melting.”
Today the garden that prompted this Emersonian experience is open to the public. The garden rooms with the restored, flowered arbors, the mature and thriving camellias, and the reconstructed clubhouse all pay tribute to a writer whose fiction knows no borders.
Tours of the home and garden are available Wednesday through Friday. Reservations are required. Call (601) 353-7762 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Spring 2009 will mark what would have been Welty’s one hundredth birthday, and many events are being scheduled in celebration.
Suzanne Marrs, is the author of Eudora Welty: A Biography