Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Smith Gilbert Gardens Visit by Flo Chaffin

Smith Gilbert Gardens Visit
April 14, 2014

Dark gray skies, low ceiling: the forecast was for rain. We met at 11 on the steps of the house at Smith Gilbert Gardens for a tour of the house and gardens led by Robert Gilbert. As we waited for the last folks to arrive, the raindrops started falling. So we walked around to the carriage house and started the day with a delicious picnic lunch.
Lunch gave us time to get to know each other a bit. We all met Ann Parsons, the new Director at Smith Gilbert. I was lucky enough to be at her end of the table, so I heard a little about her background at the Norfolk Botanical Garden and a garden in Miami (the name escapes me now). We all had questions about the beginnings of the garden, so Bob patiently answered them, and threw in a few choice stories to go along.
Lunch was finished, but the rain had just gotten started. So we loaded up with raincoats and umbrellas and started out into the “heart” of the garden, under the big pecan, where the garden had its “roots”. Along the way, Bob pointed out favorite or unusual plants, beginning at the small bridge with the Ilex cornuta ‘D’Or’, a gold berried Chinese holly that came originally from Callaway Gardens. And of course he also talked about the sculptures along the paths, too. “Woman and Dog” by Marcia Pels has a great story behind it. Marcia was a friend, Bob said, and he and Richard knew this work as something of a reflection of her life. She had only managed to have long term relationships with the dogs in her life. At some point, she called them with a proposition: if they wanted the sculpture, she would sell it to them for the price of a trip to Europe with her new boyfriend. The payments must come in monthly installments so that, while traveling, they would be sure not to run out of money. So Richard and Bob got the sculpture, and she and the boyfriend got the trip, but I believe in the end, she was left only with the dog.

It would be too much to recount all the wonderful stories about plants and sculptures. We spent a couple of hours walking through the gardens. It rained some, and more, and some again. I’ll just name a few that I remember, and include the photos of as many as I can.
The woodland gardens are filled with masses of wildflowers and perennials. I can’t remember seeing such large clumps of Bloodroot, Solomon’s Seal, Mayapple, Wood Poppy, Hosta, Farfugium, Fern, Cyclamen in one garden. We wound our way past mature specimen Japanese Maples, masses of Rhododendron, multiple species of Illicium, and Ilex. We witnessed Magnolia acuminata v. sub-cordata in full glorious bloom. And we noted various species of Crataegus (Hawthorn) sprinkled throughout the garden, with the favorite being the Parsley Hawthorn, also in full bloom.
We moved on through the rain into the conifer garden. My, how it has grown since first planted! It is stunning, and gaining momentum. We followed on to the ponds and Scree Garden. Although the ice and snow this winter took out two very large trees, the sculptures and much of the garden was spared, and I think it is on its way back even now. We all got to sit for a spell in the “not quite” Tea House overlooking the waterfall and ponds. What a marvelous spot for repose, and for coffee and dessert with friends.
We were pretty well soaked when we got back to the house. On the screened porch we shed our wet things and went into the kitchen to begin the house tour. While the exact layout of the rooms has changed over the years, the house itself remains a lovely and solid piece of architecture, enhanced by Richard and Bob’s thoughtful modifications and incredible attention to detail. We heard a great story about the hall mural, which was the last piece of the renovation work, and almost wasn’t included at all. But in the end, the artist offered up a mature and beautiful work, and I believe Bob might have also matured a bit in that process.
I personally have toured the garden and grounds once before with Bob as the tour guide. I was amazed and inspired then, and this time was no different. The plant material is amazing. The mature specimens are enlightening. The house is gorgeous. The art, including the bonsai collection, is awe inspiring. The thirty plus years of day to day work that went into this place reflects such culture, such high standards, and such love, it is difficult to put into words. But when you visit, you feel it in your bones. It was a gray, soggy, gorgeous, brilliant, eye opening day, and I think we all felt privileged to be included.

1 comment:

  1. Flo,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and photos. Rain isn't optimal for field drips—drizzling down the back of your neck, for instance—but it makes for good color photography. Nice job.