June 7, 2014 10:17:41 PM
In the spring Columbus residents quietly and with little fanfare transform their town into an oversized botanical garden.
It's as though a battalion of landscape architects, working independently, have marched into the lawns of locals bearing an eclectic selection of plants and then arrayed them in graceful patterns. The truth is, of course, we have a lot of people living here, who, when it comes to garden design, are artists in their own right.
If you're oblivious to plants as I was for my first 50 years or so, you've hardly noticed. But if you have any appreciation or knowledge of landscaping, you quickly realize this place borders on remarkable.
"You really need to go see Alice." Ralph Null, the esteemed floral designer, said when I mentioned to him Saturday morning at the farmers' market my plans to visit some of the more ebullient yards on Southside.
Alice is Alice O'Neal and she lives in a raised cottage on River Hill (104 Fifth Ave. S.) next to the house where Ed Chapman, the octogenarian motorcyclist, lived. Alice's English cottage garden offers a mosaic of colors with the purples from hydrangea, echinacea and butterfly bush complementing roses, day lilies and shrubs.
In fact flowers are the reason Alice lives in Columbus.
A native of Savannah, Alice lived in Gulfport for 45 years. When Camille destroyed their oceanfront home in 1969, she and her husband rebuilt 16 blocks inland on a bayou. Katrina hit in '05 and destroyed that house, too. In the days after, Alice, by then a widow, spent two days in her garage with her dog.
She got a FEMA trailer and was thankful for it; she lived with a friend for a bit. But she was done with the Coast.
"That was enough," she told me Saturday.
She was going to California to be near her daughter, but a visit here to see a friend changed all that. Upon entering Columbus for the first time after the hurricane, she was struck by the beauty of the flowers along Main Street.
"It was so all peaceful," she said of the town.
Alice has been living happily on River Hill since '06, and she credits that floral first impression as the reason.
When I try to probe her gardening sensibilities, the modest O'Neal, credits her helper Robert Stewart, about whom she says, "I couldn't make it without him." Otherwise she sticks to generalities.
"I guess I was born that way," she said. "I've always loved flowers."
Saturday morning Jeraldine Murray was sitting in front of the brick house her mother Gertrude built after moving to Columbus from Macon. Jeraldine was 14 at the time of the move. This was the 1950s, and jobs and opportunity were scarce for African Americans in Mississippi. At 19, Jeraldine moved north to Chicago where she eventually got a job with AT&T. Sixteen years ago she retired and moved back to Columbus.
Jeraldine lives at the east end (506 11th Ave. S.) of a two-block stretch of 11th Avenue South known in the neighborhood as Trash Alley. Though now, the strip no longer merits that unenviable designation.
On walks to Friendship Cemetery, I've admired the deep red old-fashioned roses lining Jeraldine's fence. Her mother, who died two years ago, planted the roses. Jeraldine says she tries to keep them healthy because they provide a connection to her mother. They have done that for others as well.
"Somebody stopped by just last week to ask about mother," she said.
Throughout Columbus one can see from the street plantings, both grand and modest, all beautiful in their own way. If you're looking to take a driving tour, here are a few obvious sites, though by no means all of them. Yards all over town exhibit floral flourishes, beautiful intersections between man and nature.
-- The zinnia cutting garden at Palmer Home on 11th Avenue at Eighth Street South is kaleidoscopic. Mary Tuggle, who heads HopeGrows, the garden program that gives Palmer Home kids real-world business experience, said the cut zinnias supplement the annuals and vegetables they sell at the Palmer greenhouse and Saturday's farmers' market at the Hitch Lot.
-- Linda Spearing at 712 Sixth Ave. S. has the most exuberant front yard in town. At least one Columbus couple makes a Linda-drive-by part of their daily ritual. Just one look and you'll know why.
-- David Dunn (501 Second St. S.) has been busy in his side yard with a lively display of zinnias. David's across-the-street neighbor, Gina McShan, (504 Second St. S.) has arranged for us a lovely combination of herbs and flowers in a small patch at the edge of the street.
-- Helen Hardy's cottage garden (124 Fourth Ave. S.) is interesting year-round. This year she's loaded with blue-black salvia, roses and day lilies.
-- Next-door neighbors Tommie Mack (106 Seventh Ave. S.) and Margo Bretz (106 Seventh Ave. S.) provide distinct offerings. Tommie has a purple passion flower (remember maypops?) and Margo achieves an ethereal effect by combining wispy fennel and asparagus with colorful natives like coneflower and bee balm. Margo gets extra points for the zinnias growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk in front of her house.
Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.