Jenny Howard, a Shandon resident for more than 35 years, says, “To me, Shandon is so special because one day you can go by a little house that is practically a ‘lean-to,’ and a few days later go by and see all that they’ve done.”
Makeover stories are extremely popular these days. Whether it is a human body or a home, Americans seem to love a story about a change for the better. The interesting thing about this one is that the makeover didn’t completely change the appearance; rather, it enhanced it, combining two lives and personalities that were poles apart.
Jenny had been renting a place on Terrace Way, and when the owner wanted to move back in, Jenny decided to bite the bullet and buy a house. She mainly looked in the Shandon neighborhood. Her favorite area, it is close to her work and is a central spot in Columbia that many folks lovingly call home.
One day, while performing the real estate scouting ritual familiar to so many homebuyers, Jenny turned around in a driveway on Heyward Street and saw through her rear-view mirror a teeny tiny for-sale sign, way up on a tree. “Somebody just didn’t want that thing to be seen!” Jenny laughs.
She soon found out just who didn’t want that for-sale sign to be visible – a woman named Mrs. Moody who had lived for many years in the quaint residence but had recently moved into an assisted-living facility. By Jenny’s description, Mrs. Moody was a meticulous woman who couldn’t swallow having to desert the residence that provided so many good years and memories to her and her late husband. They never had children, so, Jenny surmises, “The plants in the yard were her children.”
Jenny Howard is hesitant to put her gardening approach into a particular genre, saying simply, “I am a gardener just because I love the dirt.”
Mrs. Moody had poured her devotion into many hours of caring for the painstakingly-planted azaleas, bulbs and hot pink camellias in the front and back yards. Indeed, Jenny was right; this flora was a sort of offspring to Mrs. Moody. Like any mother, she was wary of a stranger coming in to care for her babies. Everyone had to be carefully screened for positive attributes and qualifications.
“When I asked her if I could meet with her about the sale of her home, upfront she said, ‘There are already two contracts ahead of you, I just want you to know.’” But providentially, Jenny and Mrs. Moody met anyway. “As soon as I saw the yard, I said, ‘Oh, this is a little piece of Heaven.’ I complimented her on the meticulous yard work and the tone immediately changed,” says Jenny. “I knew then that I had hit her heartstrings.”
As it turns out, the little for-sale-by-owner/as-is property was just so special to its owner that she couldn’t bear the thought of someone coming in and changing anything. Jenny and Mrs. Moody soon bonded over stories about the yard, and a new curator was in the making.
On the day Jenny moved in, she found a cake in the kitchen and a note that simply said, “Take care of my little home.” In a custom-made jelly jar cabinet on the kitchen wall, Mrs. Moody left homemade pear preserves as well, presumably sustenance Jenny would need to care for the grounds.
At the risk of making Mrs. Moody cringe, Jenny knew she would have to make some changes to the property in order to make it her own. She dismantled wrought iron back porch railings, pulled up the grass green carpet on the front porch, installed a new front door and thinned some of the azaleas and other plants, giving as many as she could away to new homes.
Then Jenny addressed the symmetry in the gardens. Given her penchant for an informal, free-flowing landscape, Jenny gently altered the symmetry and predictable lines. She added curves and edging, then a delicate fig ivy – “My pride and joy,” she beams. When asked about her gardening style, Jenny opts not to classify her approach into a particular genre. Instead, she says, “Let’s just call it a Shandon garden. I am a gardener just because I love the dirt.”
Mrs. Moody had planted a grapevine in the back yard that provides shade, cascades of leaves and an abundance of grapes to be picked and eaten. The pear tree has been a little more perplexing for Jenny, as the squirrels seem to harvest all of the fruit before she gets to them. “Somehow, the squirrels just didn’t get the pears with Mrs. Moody around,” smiles Jenny.
Jenny adores a garden with personality, and her garden’s personality comes to light through more than just foliage. The old wrought iron railings she removed from the back porch were given a creative re-purposing as trellises for vines along the side fence in the back. An unusual bench she discovered being discarded on Oak Street downtown now sits in the front yard. And some old tiles she found on the side of the road now make a rustic, curvy garden path through the front yard.
Walking the grounds, Jenny describes the plants, sharing individual stories for each one. With Lady Bankshire, Miss Huff, oleander, forsythe and loropetalum gracing the landscape, there is plenty to behold. There are also herbs, a crabapple tree, three types of palm, trumpet vines, lantana, Lenten rose and a Japanese maple. In a corner of the front yard, a century plant sits very still and fruitless, as it will bloom only once in 100 years. There are also foxtail ferns and dwarf irises. “I inherited a yard with good bones,” states Jenny.
While Mrs. Moody had no physical children, she passed along the DNA of affection for her cozy property when she signed that real estate contract in June 2001. It was then that Jenny Howard began the act of caretaking for a place that was now hers – legally, and on paper. But at the heart of the Heyward Street home, and especially in the yard, there will always be a tangible trace of unforgettable Mrs. Moody.