As Spring has gotten underway here in Georgia (well ahead of its calendar date), this writer has begun venturing outdoors more and more, strolling the backyard and looking for signs of new growth, particularly flowers in bloom. At the moment, most of the action is right outside his office window, where a non-native (probably Home Depot) holly bush is in flower, a-swarm with the contents of most of a local beehive, plus a few tiger swallowtail butterflies. These walks have also revealed the ravages of a land mostly untended this past year: honeysuckle vines in the front garden, blackberry cane gone rampant nearby, even scatterings of Chinese privet. In this writer’s eyes, there are two reasonable ways of dealing with this plight. The first is to begin laying siege to the yard, weeding and mulching and planting. The other is to pay visits to other gardens, gardens much better cared for than this one. This article, and a few to follow, will chronicle these efforts to “get away” from the backyard, to seek out Southern gardens of refuge, mostly (though not entirely) within a reasonable day-trip distance of Atlanta.
The first garden journey, undertaken a couple of weekends ago, was a venture to the west, to Birmingham, Alabama. A non-scientific poll, utilizing neither random sampling nor a large sample size, revealed that residents of the Chattahoochee Hills metropolitan district have mostly never been to the Birmingham Bontanical Gardens, or even know that they are there. Until a recent bit of online research, this writer could count himself among that number. Although it is a fair drive between the two cities, the trip from Atlanta to Birmingham is a nearly straight path along I-20, taking perhaps two and a half hours. At the end of the journey is a garden that boasts over 10,000 species of plants, 67.5 acres, the largest clear span glass conservatory in the Southeast, and even a traditional Japanese tea house and adjacent Zen rock garden. A visit to the Gardens’ website, located here, leaves one amazed at all that may be found there, particularly considering that admission is free to everyone.
On the warm and sunny Saturday afternoon when this writer visited the Gardens, the parking lot was perhaps half to two thirds full. The gardens were large enough, though, that there wasno sense of being in a crowd. Instead, small clusters of visitors wandered about or picknicked on an open green in front of the Conservatory. Happy children raced among the rose bushes (still months away from bloom) while young parent pushed strollers along the paved paths.
Meanwhile, Spring was definitely underway, as shown by riots of color, nearly all non-native cultivars: pansies, tulips, poppies, daffodils, anemones. In front of the conservatory, a garden features the faces of clusters of dark violet and saffron yellow pansies, adjacent to swaths of carmine tulips at peak bloom. Nearby, another flower garden held anemones with blooms in magenta, indigo, and white. Alas, the Conservatory itself was closed for repairs “until further notice”. The palms and cycads and orchids would have to await another visit. What was less clear, though, was how soon that might be. Pressing my forehead against the smudged front door, I could see tropical plants with yellowed leaves, looking unkempt and forlorn.
Elsewhere in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, other green spaces awaited a visit. There are extensive rose bushes, azaleas and rhododendrons. Behind the Conservatory is the Southern Living garden, a maze of narrow paved paths past flowering shrubs, lenten roses, stone walls, a miniature pool with a few water lilies, a flagstone terrace and small gazebo, and several benches (including a porch swing) for contemplating it all. Uphill from that garden, one soon enters the woodland native wildflower gardens. Here, at last, were some native species, whose blooms were humble and yet at least as entrancing to the writer as the elegant cultivars. The early bloomers included rue anemone and bloodroot, along with some trillium almost ready to flower. The paths led through upland deciduous forest and along bubbling brooks flowing over stones,
The writer’s journey through the gardens had begun in front of the Conservatory, located near the front center of the property, and then counterclockwise around the periphery. At last, he arrived at the farthest extent of the garden, halfway around the world. Passing through a brightly painted red gateway called a torii (“gate to heaven”), he arrived at the Japanese garden. A stunning Asian redbud in bloom dwarfed and diminished the Eastern redbuds flowering elsewhere in the Botanical Gardens. A path led past a Zen rock garden, to a 16th-century Sukiya-style tea house, fenced off and closed up. No tea today. Beyond was a large pond, with dozens of massive multicolored koi drifting through the murk, and red-eared slider turtles stacked on the rocks along the water’s edge. At the far edge of the pond, a trail led through a grove of bamboo and cypress and over a bright red curving footbridge. From the bridge, a view of the pond was partially obscured by a cherry tree in bloom.
Reluctantly, the writer left Japan behind, passing through another stand of Piedmont forest and arriving at last back at the front gate with its stone columns. Although the walk took only two hours, it had led past many inviting places to sit and ponder nature or just soak up the sunlight of an early spring afternoon. On one bench at a crossing of paths, the writer encountered middle-aged man and his adult daughter, talking about the Gardens. Likely a local resident, the man remarked that he enjoyed visiting as often as he could, because the Birmingham Botanical Gardens were never the same — different flowers were in bloom each time, and different perspectives offered by the ever-changing landscape. It was a humbling reminder that a garden profile requires many, many visits to begin to gain a true sense of the place. One afternoon is insufficient. Of the 10,000 plant species in the gardens, this writer saw perhaps a hundred, and identified about a quarter of that number. Many visits remain to be taken, but this journey was, at least, a beginning.