Planting a Memory
Elsie Owens' garden is steeped in tradition
Smilax, an old Southern favorite, hangs from the porch.
Photography by Emily Clay
When Elsie Owens and her late husband, Jimmy, built their house in 2000 on Lakeview Circle, they knew they wanted it to be all about the garden. “We asked our architect, Henry Boykin, to have as many of the windows facing the garden as possible. We also structured the windows so that the mullions are only on the front windows facing the street — there are none in the windows looking out into the garden. Having the wide open glass optically brings the outside in,” says Elsie.
In truth, it would be hard for most of the home’s windows not to be facing the garden as Elsie has carefully cultivated every square inch of dirt in her lot as a part of a dynamic and stunning whole.
“I waited a year for a designer who had said she would help me, but when that finally fell through, my friend George Hartness told me that I did not need a designer, I just needed to remember axis,” Elsie says.
After reading Timeless Landscape Design by Mary Palmer and Hugh Dargan cover to cover, Elsie decided to go for it. Having always had a flair for art, architecture and interior design, Elsie’s project was destined for success.
“I like structure in a garden — neat and tidy rooms with a continuous repeating theme that unifies the whole. I am particularly attracted to the Italian style, which features a centered axis and a vista that makes you want to go from here to there to take a closer look. I have structured my garden with the theme of arches with flat, straight lines on either side that I originally based off of the arch above my front door. I also just have white and green as my colors in the garden with an occasional hint of blue or purple, and I try to have several different ‘vistas,’” says Elsie.
Her favorite garden in the world is the Villa Gamberaia in Florence, Italy, and she is planning on visiting it for the first time this year.
Elsie was originally inspired, however, by growing up in her grandparents’ garden, which had lots of pathways with twists and turns and always had a visual surprise around each bend. It was an ideal place to let her imagination run wild as a child. Now, she has created her own “secrets” in her garden for Ellie and Anne Rhett Harris, her grandchildren, to discover.
“Ellie’s Garden is the pocket in the back left of my garden and is completely designed for children,” says Elsie. Named for her first granddaughter, it is the ideal place for a little girl to pretend. Situated around a child’s blue bench are a myriad of mini statues such as a cricket and a frog riding a snail. A mirror hanging on a brick wall reflects the garden and appears to be looking into another room beyond the wall.
In the right corner is “Jimmy’s Hideaway” which was Jimmy’s favorite retreat in the garden. It too has its share of surprises, including a statue of a face that resembles him hanging on the brick wall and two Chinese lanterns, one of which was in Elsie’s grandparents’ garden.
“I have all of my grandchildren convinced that it is where all the fairies of the garden live,” laughs Elsie.
Jimmy, who passed away due to Parkinson’s disease this past year, loved the peaceful atmosphere of this secluded corner. A small round table and comfortable outdoor chairs provide a nice atmosphere in which to enjoy the garden.
This rose bush belonged to Jimmy Owens, Elsie’s late husband. Elsie transplanted it without much hope of it surviving. Not only did it thrive, but it also won first place at the State Fair.
“Jimmy was a big part of this garden, and we loved to spend time out here together. As he grew sicker, he loved to watch me garden from the porch and moved into a supervisor and director role,” she smiles.
Gardening was her therapeutic release during his five-year illness. “I love how quiet and peaceful it always is in the garden. With no sounds other than the singing birds, I feel so close to God, and all of the worries of the day just melt away.”
Elsie first began to garden, however, as a way to keep an eye on her young children. “I always made Blair and Eleanor play outside, and gardening gave me something to do where I could watch them. I very quickly became hooked on gardening for its own sake,” says Elsie.
Elsie says that she has always been a do-it-herselfer, and she carried this mentality far past creating the design for the garden. “I have always operated my garden on a tight budget,” she says, “so when I needed a brick coping to border the back edge of the garden, I made friends with the brick mason next door and paid him to teach me how to lay bricks.” Between his instruction and a book on the subject, Elsie successfully laid all of the bricks in her garden.
Elsie built the wall fountain in front of the house herself and laid the stones for the walkway.
Elsie also built the wall fountain in the front of the house with minimal assistance and laid stones as the walkway. Ferns and New Guinea impatiens adorn this sweet, tucked away spot.
The ornate shell mirror hanging above the sofa on the back porch is also a creation of her own design. Elsie comes by this hands-on creativity honestly, as her grandmother, Margaret Rhett Taylor, made the detailed mosaic tabletop that sits in front of the same sofa.
Elsie’s favorite plants are her peonies, roses and boxwoods. Two urns sit on either side of the garden and hold boxwoods from Mount Vernon. “We fondly refer to them as George and Martha!” she laughs.
(Left) Elsie cultivates an early-blooming variety of peonies, as the heat is too much for the regular ones. (Middle) New Dawn roses cover an arbor leading into the garden. (Right) A Lady Banks rose bursts with yellow blossoms in early spring.
Elsie cultivates an early-blooming variety of peonies, as the heat is too much for the regular ones. The rich, luscious white blooms each have more fragrance than a whole rosebush put together. Elsie also has an old rosebush that originated in France and is the type used in making perfumes, so it is also quite fragrant, to say the least.
Another special rosebush is Jimmy’s Rosebush. Elsie says that when they moved it to this house from Spring Lake Road, it just burst into bloom and thrived. Unbeknownst to the Owenses, Waties Kennedy, a dear friend, entered it in the State Fair’s Old Rose Show, and it won a blue ribbon. It has since won ribbons every single year. Jimmy and Elsie had an ongoing joke about who the ribbons truly belonged to, however, as technically the rosebush was given to him, but it was Elsie who took the time to nurture it.
The best part about having a garden, says Elsie, is the opportunity to share it with others. Each year for her birthday, she asks her brother, Walter Taylor, and his family to spend a day gardening with her. But this year, Walter surprised her with an even larger contribution to her garden — a statue that she had admired at a Hay Hill show and actually recommended he purchase for his wife, Helen. It replaced a bright white statue that George Hartness had referred to as her garden’s “sore thumb.” The current elegant statue of a child with a butterfly alighting on his arm is a much more subdued color and is made of cast iron. It is now her favorite part of her whole garden.
Elsie’s grandchildren, Ellie and Anne Rhett Harris, in Ellie’s Garden.
“Gardens are always changing, which is what makes them interesting and always so much fun. I believe in the old saying: ‘If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk. If you want to be happy for a year, fall in love. If you want to be happy for a lifetime, garden.’”