This is to connect our Southern Indiana farmhouse, built in 1860, to England’s famed RHS Garden Wisley, founded in 1878, to the legendary horticulturist Mike Dirr, his age doesn’t matter, to the incredible witch hazel Hamamelis mollis ‘Wisley Supreme’ which is blooming in my wife’s garden right now.
All 15 glorious, spectacular, screaming-yellow, incredibly fragrant, and totally welcome 15 feet of it.
When we moved here in 1975…
Our home was a time-worn, sun-battered farmhouse whose previous owners were getting divorced, still living together, and not particularly interested in upkeep. The house came with a leaky tin roof, crumbling chimneys, creaky floors, fallen fences, eight crabapple trees buried under tents of honeysuckle and six acres of weeds.
My wife, Janet, and I had grown up in Northern Illinois farm country in which most home gardens consisted of lettuce, beans, corn, carrots, potatoes and 136 tomato plants. Flower gardens were standard annuals: sun flowers, marigolds, zinnias and have I mentioned marigolds?
In Indiana, this changed about the time we noticed a few new houses being built in the neighborhood, so we purchased two bare acres next to ours to fend off this onslaught of civilization. At the same time, a fellow journalist and good buddy named Mike Hayman found himself getting deeply into more interesting and exotic shrubs and trees. He needed a place – like two bare acres – on which to plant these new and rare cultivars.
Hayman was collecting truly new and interesting stuff as I was becoming more interested in such, and happy to baby sit them. We briefly created the world’s most unprofitable nursery, woodies and conifers all strung out together side-side-side until Hayman, whose life is now devoted to covering Louisville in just the right trees, took over.
Back then, whatever a relentless Hayman found or was given – from New England to Tennessee to Georgia to the Pacific Northwest – he would often just stuff the one and two-gallon containers in the back of my pickup. Occasionally unannounced. Caring soul that I am, I would take them home and plant in goofy order on the formerly bare two acres.
This got totally out of hand when Hayman learned of Mike Dirr, the Georgia Plant Genius who had set up shot in Athens with Perennial Plant Pro Allan Armitage. Long story short, Hayman called Dirr and pretty much said I’m coming to see you whether you like it or not.
Dirr, a man of considerable passion himself, recognized the fervor and the two met up. Then I got to go along to Athens with Hayman. My most remembered moment of that first trip was when we all took off on one of Dirr’s six-hour, cross-country plant hikes. He asked me a question, saw the look of terror on my face and never asked me another one.
Then Dirr arranged one of his periodic trips to the great gardens of England and I got on the list. Other greats included legendary, University of Georgia football Coach Vince Dooley, a plant expert himself, and Kentucky Yew Dell’s Paul Cappiello.
So there I was, pretty much knowing nothing, but eager to learn, flying off to tour English gardens with a few of the most knowledgeable plant people on the planet.
We would visit 21 gardens in seven days: three per day. Our motto during our infrequent breaks was” We’re wasting time.” At one stop, I think using a soccer ball, I got to show Coach Dooley my passing skills. He said I was a little too old and slow for the Southeastern Conference. Dirr later signed one of his woody landscape manuals for me, even said nice things, a bible I treasure to this day.
What a journey!
I learned of the enduring value of the Royal Horticultural Society with its show gardens across England. I learned something new about plants at every stop. I was astounded at the ability of the others to memorize plants, to rattle off ten cultivars, to talk about who around the world had first produced what and when over many years’ time. I was hooked.
Dirr had permission to bring plants and cuttings home to the states, provided they were carefully washed, their roots wrapped and protected. Most of the washing was done in a hotel bathtub the night before we left, leaving a swamp of mud about four inches deep in the tub as we got the hell out of town.
Our most memorable stop was at the RHS Garden Wisley, all 240 acres of it. Spread out before the rookie from Indiana were glass houses, alpine houses, rocks gardens, a walled garden, rose borders, a canal with water lilies and trial fields where so many new cultivars are created, among them, the ‘Wisley Supreme’ witch hazel.
Looking it up in the plant history books, one said of it: “A plant that went unnoticed at Wisley for a long time. It was partly smashed down in the hurricane of 1987 but has grown back nicely, but unfortunately is in too much shade to show its real promise.”
Fast Forward to February 2022
The Hills have learned a lot about exotic plants, shrubs and trees since 1975, much of it directly attributed to Mike Hayman, Mike Dirr and a cast of thousands. And avoiding the bathtub police.
Over the 20 years as the Hills grew their acres of gardens they created a special one in the center called “Janet’s Garden.” It is a quiet place, with a fountain in its middle; something you might see in England. At its edges, in quite a bit of sun, are two booming ‘Wisley Supreme’ witchhazels welcoming in the new year, producing old memories.
Gardens are always best at providing a full circle.