One woman’s vision

by angelawinter

It’s a hot Sunday in May, and my to-do list is filled to the brim — tomatoes and basil to plant, posole to cook, and concrete stoops to power wash. But all I want to do is sit on the porch and stare out at the hazy sky, coffee in hand. I hate that I saved all my chores for today. There’s way too much to tackle, and the more I consider the impossibility of finishing everything, the crankier I get.

Clearly the best thing to do is ditch it all and go visit a garden.

The celebrated, private gardens of Montrose are open to the public today — one of only two days in 2011. Usually I hear about these openings too late, but not this year. I don’t want to miss seeing them again.

I grab a wide-brimmed hat, hop in the car, and meander past meadows and cow pastures to the leafy environs of Hillsborough, North Carolina. This tiny historic town is the county seat and home to an annual hog festival, a reconstructed 17th-century Indian village, and a slew of notable authors, including Annie Dillard, Allan Gurganus, Lee Smith, and Hal Crowther. At the downtown pub, you might see bikers mixing with banjo players, blue-clad college kids beside farmers in overalls, or an ex-presidential candidate lying low among the locals.

I take a road that winds away from the town’s main drag, pass by an Episcopal church, and park at an elementary school. Montrose is next door. As I enter through the front gate, the cries of circling red-tailed hawks capture my attention. But soon the vegetation steals the show.

Trees of burgundy and green surround a lush expanse of lawn. I follow a gravel path to the front of the house, which used to be the governor’s mansion (back when Hillsborough was the capital). And from there, I visit garden after garden — some in shade, others in sun, each a riot of color and semi-contained chaos. Nigella and poppies have sown themselves into the pathways; their insistence and exuberance charm me as I step around them. I see banana trees, wicked thorns of barberry bushes, cast-iron urns spilling over with plants, roses climbing rustic trellises made of juniper, and a magnificent magnolia with crazy-looking blossoms larger than my head. Cats wander through it all, occasionally deigning to pose for a photo or two. Under some shade trees near a line of boxwoods, lemonade is being served. Its sweet tang takes the edge off the heat.

I head to the greenhouse to view the plants for sale and end up clutching a small conifer and a bright green succulent. A man wearing a worn cap over his long hair notices me and says, “You look like you’re having the time of your life.” I smile and move into the shade. He’s right: my mood has changed entirely. I no longer feel aggravated about my to-do list, the weather, or anything else. Somehow being here has catapulted me into another state of consciousness. Time seems to have slowed, and I’m filled with gratitude.

I walk over to a tent to pay. When I ask to whom I should write the check, an older woman replies, “To me.” Nancy Goodwin, Montrose’s owner and self-taught master gardener, is sitting in a lawn chair looking at me with a gaze clear and sharp. Her nondescript clothes and no-nonsense manner overlie a potent energy, charisma, and passion — as though Cleopatra were packed into a seed. This one woman has managed to create gardens at a nearly unbelievable scale, without power tools or irrigation and with only a handful of women to help. I’m both humbled and inspired by her vision.

I want to dream bigger.