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.
A fun and charming read, thanks!
Thoroughly enjoyed the read! Thanks!
Inspiring article for novices like me – and as a writer, love that last line!
21 gardens in 7 days with people who know what they are looking at….you don’t have to wait to see heaven….you’ve already been.
My family moved into a tight-knit rural community in Southern Indiana, in the mid 80s and stayed for about 15 years. I wish we had known about your garden. My mom would have loved to visit; she poured herself into turning our abandoned poultry farm into a little sanctuary for herself and us.
Oh dear, 21 gardens in 7 days? A whole day is not enough to appreciate Wisley and unfortunately endorses our image of Americans visiting the UK: if it’s Tuesday, it must be Stratford….. However, I am persuaded to forgive with a shared passion for Hamamelis mollis. I spent a number of years tutting at the extortionate price for such a brief flowering plant but eventually weakened. Last year I bought hamamelis mollis jelena and oh, such joy when there is no colour in the garden! Followed by this year’s purchase of Diane, a redhaired beauty….. I can feel a Feuerzauber coming on next!
‘Jelena’ is one of my favorites and within minutes of blooming here in Northern Virginia. ‘Pallida’ makes my heart skip. Such a pure yellow.
This wonderful post gave me renewed appreciation for my two juvenile Wisley Supremes today – all two and a half feet of them. I’m sure many can relate to the bathtub mud, the three-gardens-a-day-march, and the joy of traveling with great plant minds. Like drinking champagne from a fire hose — intoxicating but exhausting. I have only met Mike Dirr once, in his garden and the garden of Vince Dooley, thanks to the Garden Writers Association years ago. I remember the questions — and the terror. Thanks for bringing us along on an enviable trip. – MW
“This got totally out of hand when Hayman learned of Mike Dirr, the Georgia Plant Genius who had set up shot“?
I am guessing he meant “shop”?
This was a joy to read! Visiting the UK to see gardens is on my bucket list, although I know I’d dawdle way too much oohing and awwing over all I see to to manage a whirlwind tour like yours. But what a marvelous opportunity for you. Thanks for brightening my morning.
My single favorite witch hazel is ‘Wisley Supreme’, which is not as readily available as it should be (at least here in the Southeast). Thanks for a fun and interesting article, and a much deserved spotlight on a stunner of a winter flowering beauty!
My grandfather owned property in Southern Indiana. Half of it was corn, a few acres were dense woodland with a tiny pond, and the acres around the barn and homesite were orchard, garden, and lawn. It was the stereotype of the region (including a lawn jockey* and wind chimes made out of Budweiser beer cans). We would occasionally drive to one of his friends and tromp through a cow pasture to fish in their pond. It’s hilarious to picture a bunch of exotic plants growing on a similar plot of land.
*I’m pretty sure the lawn jockey was my introduction to racist tropes. For those unfamiliar with this appalling lawn ornament, see page 9: https://clas.ucdenver.edu/nhdc/sites/default/files/attached-files/entry_149.pdf
Kendra, I read the whole article you linked. Fascinating! I’ve seen lawn jockeys, and thought them vile, but knew nothing about their history. Thanks for sharing.