Frances Mayes Had Great Expectations For Her Chatwood Garden
The author had visions of grandeur for the 30 acres she purchased in Hillsborough, North Carolina. The garden had plans of its own.
As most every gardener knows, the etymological root of the word "paradise" means "enclosed park." Enclosed or not, a garden of any size or design can give to its owner a respite that's as close to a paradise as we can get. My husband, Ed, differs. "Blissful and bothersome," he says. No matter how the anemones bloom on cue, how many wafts of gardenia and daphne and magnolia drift around the porch, or how scrumptious the basket of peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants is, there's always a moderating force: As you survey the beds, you begin to notice that some things could be better. You see weeds; fallen branches; yellowing remains of daffodils, hyacinths, and irises after the bloom is over. And why, why did anyone ever plant 10 walnut trees at the entrance, where guests could be conked on the head by falling nuts? Why the perpetual glitch in the fountain, the black spot on prize roses, and the peach tree dying for no reason?
Room for Roses
We have 30 acres here at Chatwood, about 3 miles outside Hillsborough, North Carolina. Six of those acres are cultivated gardens, including a brick-walled, three-room area that's planted with 350 old roses. Helen Blake, later Watkins, the woman who started the gardens at Chatwood in the mid-fifties, made specific rooms, delineated by hedges and wide perennial borders. Roses were her biggest passion, and she gathered them from cemeteries and old farms before becoming smitten with heritage French roses. Sixty-odd years on, I still consult her old plant maps and struggle to replace the ones that die. Antique roses usually bloom briefly once a year, sending out lovely fragrances I'd smelled only in bottles at fancy perfume counters before. There's the rub—a real gardener just anticipates brief moments of glory, ignoring the rest of the year when the rose garden looks bleak.
Touch of History
Chatwood was built by Quakers, the Faucettes, in the late 1700s. When the house burned down, they erected a plain but dignified Federal farmhouse in 1806. It's one of two in North Carolina that were built in that period as both a commercial and residential space. We have two front doors. One served as the entrance to an inn and tavern; the other led into the family residence. Nothing grand—it must have been an inn where everyone was piled into a couple of rooms—but it was well built with wide heart-pine floors, seven fireplaces, and many-paned windows, now with bubbly glass that makes the view seem subterranean. When we remodeled the attic, we found Roman numerals carved into each succeeding beam and huge pegs holding sections together. With frontage on the Eno River and a short distance from a (still-standing) gristmill, the inn offered the traders and farmers bringing their corn to be ground a place to stay if the river was high. For many years, it was known as Coach House, but the home's name was changed by later owners Helen and Charles Blake to honor the chat, a kind of songbird seen on the property. Our guesthouse served as a laboratory for Dr. Blake's ornithological studies. Here, he tagged the birds he netted and then sent them flying. He'd hear frequently from South America or Mexico that someone had found a Chatwood-tagged bird. Maybe it's the river—flyovers pause here, even murmurations, birds blackening the sky in their mysterious patterns of swoops and reversals.
As much as you own an old house and garden, it also owns you. There's a continuum in progress that you have stepped into, and now you're entranced and sweetly obligated to sow seeds in the vintage greenhouse, to plant the lettuces in 10-day intervals, to eat okra that keeps on coming long after you've had enough. At the same time, I want to add my own vision. I want to revise. I want to shake it up.
I've turned a two-room outbuilding into an art studio and writing retreat. The gardeners, Emily and Teresa, were not surprised that I wanted a scraggly holly hedge ripped out, opening the view to long, yellow flower beds.
Rest and Relax
We added an oval pool right in front of the 1770 barn. I dream of one day turning the barn into a pool house.
Visions of Inspiration
I built a structure that I call the Chapel of Hog Wire in the meadow and also a wire billboard; both are used to hang art for an annual show, most recently celebrating the work of the brilliant landscape artist John Beerman. While wandering around the garden, a couple of hundred people will sip wine and munch on sage-orange shortbread and tea sandwiches of pimiento cheese or watercress. The chapel is covered in climbing gourds and morning glories in full summer, making it a secret spot to read. My two cats think it's their house to climb.
Across the entrance lane in a former cornfield, Ed planted a dozen heritage apple trees. So far, in five years they've yielded only four gnarly apples. In the vegetable garden (which is surrounded by a picket fence to deter deer), we grow strawberries, cucumbers, clumps of zinnias, cardoon, herbs, and squash—an overwhelming bounty to share. I have to feel sunny and carefree opening the gate with an empty basket on my arm.
We often walk down to the edge of the woods to visit the remains of an old springhouse. The first daffodils—Chatwood has hundreds—come up around the half-fallen stones, and the first copperheads (trouble in paradise) rear their cunning heads from their holes. I like to imagine Mrs. Faucette bringing her butter and cheese to the shelves that once existed over the pure spring water trickling up from underground. A stream flows from here into the Eno River. Will we ever clear the watery weeds and wade in the cold water? With the helpful Stoney Grove landscaping crew, we've cleared jungle brush and weed trees along the river, which inexplicably had been ignored as part of the garden. We hired men with major equipment to cut and dig and saw for two weeks. Suddenly, the meadow extended to the water. Ed bought a tool that clips high branches and a new Weedwacker. I knew we were in the garden's thrall when my romantic husband gave me a chain saw for Valentine's Day. We installed a culvert over another stream and now have access to a mile-long riverside path as well. Our few neighbors walk on our land and we, in turn, on theirs. The woods are full of laurel. The small pink blossoms remind me of a dotted swiss sundress I wore when I was 8 years old. It's an ineffable joy to stroll along the Eno, to startle turtles who flop off logs, to see trees reflected on the surface, and to find shy ferns peeking around rocks.
We've lived here five years. I know to expect a pink knot of hyacinths to begin erupting by late January, a riot of daffodils to bloom in March, and a swath of Virginia bluebells to pop out in May, along with the peonies and roses. Rafts of daylilies, ginger lilies, and calla lilies carry through midsummer. Then black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, phlox, and Japanese anemones save the day in August, when our Southern gardens start to lapse into heat exhaustion. The short winters blot out any bright color, leaving the outdoor palette gray, dun, and black, with only boxwoods and cedars to spark the scene. A garden enfolds us into the seasons, reminding us always that we are in the cycle ourselves. Paradise, yes.