The Sun and the Heir(looms)

In April, fiddlehead ferns, tulips, azaleas, spirea and dogwood were among the flowers blossoming in Bob Graham’s English-style garden in Hyman Heights. But he staggers his plantings to bloom all year round. Photos by Tim Robison.

When Bob Graham has a question about a plant, he doesn’t have to go online or consult a field guide. He taps his crew — a collection of like-minded horticulture buffs who, with their niche cultural focus, diverge from the typical notion of a garden club.

The corporate sales professional and self-proclaimed history buff has transformed the front of his home in Hendersonville’s Hyman Heights Historic District into an authentic English-cottage-style garden.

As a member of the Historic Garden Club of Hendersonville, he shares his passion with other heirloom-flower buffs who want to chat about what’s blooming, where to plant a specific lily variety, or how to rid the yard of moles.

It’s not your old-ladies-with-white-gloves type of garden club,” Graham says. “It’s regular folks who love the homes in here.”

The garden club currently has about 20 members, with most located in Hyman Heights — a collection of more than 100 early-20th-century homes of various styles, bound by North Main Street on the south and US 25 on the west. But the small group is not exclusive so much as just-budding: the two-year-old club is open to anyone with an interest in historic-style gardens.

Many of the homes in the district, and the other six historic districts in Hendersonville, were built in the 1920s or ’30s or before. The Gothic Revival “Killarney” home, the oldest in Hyman Heights, hearkens back to 1858, and is owned by club head Suzanne Hale. The group’s goal, as it states on its Facebook page — members are apparently not Luddites when it comes to social media — is “to explore historic gardening designs, techniques, practices and plants and apply what we learn to our historic homes.” The mission includes sharing knowledge with neighbors and friends.

Hale moved here six years ago, packing her passion for horticulture and a desire to learn more about her standout home. “The club is very new,” she acknowledges. “The neighbors got together and decided to learn about the kinds of gardens that went with our homes.”

She arrived with her own heirloom plants, including a spread of Hostas that have been in her family more than 100 years. They keep company with a rare specimen on the property, a Medlar, a small fruit tree of French origin that Hale says required three arborists to identify. Generally, however, she showcases native plants: flowering red buckeye, deciduous flame azalea, trillium, bloodroot.

“I try to have something in bloom all the time,” she says. Hale favors harder-to-find heirloom varieties rather than modern versions of flowers and shrubs sold in big-box stores. Newer plants, she says, are seeded to pop out in loud hues. “They’re meant to get your attention … but the colors of heirloom flowers are much subtler, and because they are, they can blend really well with each other.”

Through research, club members have learned not only what was once planted, but also about layout and design — how the outside of their places once looked. During one meeting, there was a presentation by a resident who lived in the neighborhood in the 1930s.

Members discovered that foundation planting was done in front yards, vegetable gardens flourished in backyards, and that porch planters often contained begonias, because they grow well in shade.

The club hopes to encourage more people in the historic neighborhoods to begin growing plants representative of their home’s ages. But it isn’t a must.

For his part, Graham says his property is not some period facsimile of an earlier era. More straightforwardly, “it’s representative of someone who loves gardening.”

Cottage-style gardens started in the UK in the 1500s. The idea spans centuries, but is distinguished, in general, by copious plantings of great variety. “Basically, it’s the opposite of a formal garden,” says Graham. A large number of different plants are sowed for maximum density — not arranged in neat rows, but mingled en masse.

“It’s not perfect,” says Graham. “It all grows together in a beautiful cacophony. My garden blooms from March until November, and there’s always something different popping out.”

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