JACKSON, MISS. — Through the front windows in the upstairs room where she worked and slept, the writer Eudora Welty could gaze out on neighbors strolling the sidewalk, and on the great live oaks shading the campus of the Presbyterian college across the street. But mainly she looked out on the old water oak in the front yard and the winter-blooming camellias directly below, their white and magenta blossoms floating on glossy leaves. This garden, designed by Welty's mother, Chestina, enfolded the house in artfully accented green, providing relief from the long, slow boil of the Mississippi summer. Throughout her life, the garden wove its way into her fiction and framed moments of quiet epiphany in her letters.
In Welty's fiction, flowers may bloom as images of interior churnings more felt than seen: "A blushing sensitivity sprang up in her every year at the proper time like a flower of the season, like the Surprise Lilies that came up with no leaves and overnight in Miss Nell's yard," she wrote in the short story "June Recital."
And in "A Curtain of Green," a grieving woman throws herself into gardening. Each day, when the character wanders into her garden, she enters a spiritual wilderness of sorts: "To a certain extent, she seemed not to seek for order, but to allow an overflowering, as if she consciously ventured forever a little farther, a little deeper, into her life in the garden."
Welty was 16 when, in 1925, she and her two younger brothers moved with their parents to 1119 Pinehurst Street – a newly built house in Jackson's new subdivision of Belhaven. After completing college in Wisconsin, Welty moved to New York. But in 1931, her father became ill, and she returned home. When he died a few months later, she stayed on and began working seriously on writing and photography, while her mother threw herself into gardening. Although Welty traveled and mingled with other artists and writers, she and her mother lived here for the rest of their lives.
Welty bequeathed her unpretentious house to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) for use as a literary house museum. (It has since been declared a National Historic Landmark.) After her passing in 2001, MDAH, with help from the private Welty Foundation, began restoring the garden to its peak period of 1925-45. Though most of the work was done before the house opened to the public in 2006, Susan Haltom, the garden historian overseeing the project, says the garden is "a work in progress."
"This isn't a show garden, it's a working garden," says Mary Alice White, director of the Welty House, who is also Welty's niece. "Eudora didn't want to make it something it wasn't."
After her mother died in 1966, Eudora Welty still referred to the yard around the family's Tudor-revival house as "my mother's garden" and to herself as "my mother's yard man." Any working gardener will see the amount of love and labor the women invested in their three-quarter-acre yard. Divided into outdoor "rooms" filled with old-fashioned perennials, the garden is characteristic of southern household gardens of the period. Chestina Welty's talent as an amateur garden designer can be seen in her sophisticated handling of space. She laid out the three main garden rooms to provide pleasing views from the house. She then "furnished" each room with plants of different heights: Flowering shrubs rise behind floral borders, all backed by a screen of conifers and broad-leafed evergreens.
The front lawn flows into a tree-sheltered space in front of the porch, where a collection of Camellia japonica, salted with a few Camellia sasanqua, takes center stage. Daughter and mother shared a lifelong love of these flowering shrubs. Welty occasionally sent a box of fresh-cut camellias to her agent, Diarmuid Russell, on the overnight train to New York.
One of three reconstructed arbors marks the passage from the porch space to the upper garden behind the house. Between a curving border and a cutting garden, a rebuilt arbor for climbing roses frames the lower garden and its bed of early hybrid tea and old garden roses. Beyond the lower garden, backed by a bamboo thicket, lies the woodland garden, where the reconstructed clubhouse stands. Welty once quipped that she retreated here to "privately edit the Radio News and chew gum," while working for a local radio station in the 1930s.
For Eudora Welty, the garden itself became a private sanctuary, even a place of transformation. She once wrote to her agent, Russell, "Every evening when the sun is going down and it is cool enough to water the garden, and it is all quiet except for the locusts in great waves of sound, and I stand still in one place for a long time putting water on the plants, I feel something new – that is all I can say – as if my will went out of me, as if I had a stubbornness and it was melting."
Japanese camellia ( Camellia japonica) is one of the stars of southern gardens. Native to Japan and China, this woody plant with brown bark and lustrous, dark evergreen leaves grows in a dense pyramid 10 to 25 feet high and 6 to 10 feet wide. According to common wisdom, a properly pruned camellia has enough space between branches so that a bird can fly through, giving it the open habit of a Japanese maple. Gardeners prize the flowers, which can grow up to three to five inches across in a number of double- and single-petaled forms described in comparison to flowers of other species – rose, anemone, peony, and so forth. Blossoms are red, pink, cream, or white.
The Japanese camellia's smaller cousin, Camellia sasanqua, also makes a striking garden plant, with finer foliage and smaller blossoms than C. japonica. While all camellias thrive in slightly acid soil, C. sasanqua requires full sun, poor soil, and blooms in the fall. C. japonica prefers filtered light and well-drained soil. As for pests, the species is subject to scale and mites, which experienced growers claim are easily remedied.
Cultivars are usually classified as early-, mid-, and late-season bloomers. Until recently, the "season" in the United States was defined as the fall and winter in hardiness zones 7 to 9, or from October through April or May in southern states. But Tom Johnson, horticulturist for the American Camellia Society in Fort Valley, Ga., reports that new hybrids can tolerate winters in zone 6 (if planted in a protected spot), with even hardier hybrids likely. "These new, cold-hardy camellias have survived to minus 10 degrees F.," he says. The hybrids derive from the fall-blooming tea-oil camellia ( Camellia olifera), which prefers well-drained soil and filtered light.
All camellias belong to the tea family (Theaceae) and C. sinensis produces the leaves used in tea consumed as a beverage. According to Mr. Johnson, this shared ancestry accounts for the garden camellia's introduction to the West in the 18th century, at least anecdotally. "The English were buying tea from India, then they decided to buy the actual tea plants, thinking to save the shipping costs," Johnson says. "Indian merchants outsmarted them by selling them an entire boatload of Camellia japonica."
• For more information, contact the American Camellia Society at:
Massee Lane Gardens
100 Massee Lane
Fort Valley, GA 31030