Eudora Welty: the garden at the heart of her creativity

Eudora Welty's love for flowers is explored in a new book. 

L: Nancy R. Schiff/Reuters R: Bill Regan
The garden of author Eudora Welty (l.) was restored by members of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and other volunteers.

In July of 1994, when I interviewed Eudora Welty at the home in Jackson, Mississippi where she had lived almost continuously since childhood, Welty expressed only one regret as she reflected on her life and work.

Welty, then 85 years old and in frail health, lamented that as her body had declined, her garden had declined along with it.

“The garden is gone,” she told me with a slight sigh in her drawling Southern voice. “It makes me ill to look at it.”

But what the celebrated matriarch of Southern letters didn’t know at the time – and what I didn’t know, either – was that help was just around the corner.

During the 1980s, Welty had donated her house to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, with the understanding that the house would be turned into a museum after she died. In August of 1994, Susan Haltom, who worked at the department and had an interest in garden design, showed up at Welty’s doorstep along with other department employees. With the assistance of other volunteers, they offered to slowly restore the garden that Welty and her late mother had once tended to perfection, creating an Eden of daylilies, roses, nandinas, camellias, azaleas and other Southern horticultural favorites.

Welty was excited about the restoration plan, though impressed by the amount of work that Haltom and her team had ahead of them. “It would be like hell to do,” Welty said of the job.

Haltom, along with landscape historian and garden writer Jane Roy Brown, tells the story of that restoration in "One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place," a new coffee-table book from University Press of Mississippi that also includes lavish pictures of the garden by photographer Langdon Clay. Welty family photos of the garden from its inception in the 1920s into the recent past complement Clay’s handiwork, creating a lovely pictorial record of an intimate landscape over time.

Although the subject matter gives "One Writer’s Garden" natural appeal to green thumbs, the book is really about how Welty’s gardening informed the creative life of one of the most distinguished American novelists and short story writers of the 20th century. Welty (1909-2001), best known as the author of short story collections such as "A Curtain of Green" and novels such as "The Ponder Heart" and "The Optimist’s Daughter," drew critical inspiration from her gardening when she sat down at the writing desk, according to Haltom and Brown.

“References to flowers and gardens colored her fiction and correspondence,” the authors write. “Their consistent presence in her writing reveals that the flower garden lay at the heart of her inner world, sustaining her creativity and stirring her imagination.”

I learned about Welty’s deep connection with flowers during my 1994 interview, when she recalled her winter days as a graduate student at Columbia University in New York – and the joy Welty felt when her mother relieved her homesickness by shipping camellias to Gotham.

“It was wonderful to be up there with the ice and snow, and these lovely tropical flowers would come,” Welty told me. Later, safely ensconced back in Jackson, Welty revived the tradition, shipping homegrown camellias to her snowbound friends up North.

“I sewed the stems to the inside edges of the boxes so they wouldn’t move about or jostle and hit each other. It was my own invention,” Welty said. “I only tried to send four or five blooms in a box on overnight express. I’d wrap the stems in wet cotton. In those days, you could go down to the train station and put things on the express and they’d get to New York the next day.”

Welty’s meticulous precision in stitching blossoms for shipment exemplified the kind of exactitude and eye for beauty that she brought to her prose.

When Welty died on July 23, 2001, Haltom, at the request of Welty’s family, arranged a bouquet of summer flowers “gathered from her yard and mine.”

It was a fitting send-off to a writer who grew both and stories and flowers with equal brilliance.

Danny Heitman, columnist with The Baton Rouge Advocate and a frequent contributor to national publications, is the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.

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