Field Notes 27

Lower South BY JENKS FARMER / Columbia, South Carolina, Zone B

Art among the Palms

I LOVE A GARDEN that makes me feel like Alice in Wonderland. The Ann Norton Sculpture Garden in West Palm Beach, Florida, is one of those places—where plants dominate, entangle, envelop, and leave me feeling dwarfed next to their majesty. I feel tiny here as I make my way through tunnels of soft, rustling palms and dark thickets of vines to find the soaring brick and mortar sculptures of the late artist Ann Norton.

From 1949 until 1982, Norton worked in bronze, wood, stone, and brick in this garden studio. While she was sometimes inspired by nature, many of her sculptures also address social issues—such as her concern for the plight of the Tibetan people.

She was in her mid-forties when she created her series of colossal, limestone, almost pre-Columbian figures.

For me, though, her most magical works are those she made from brick (pictured). The sculptures themselves are breathtaking in scale and structure. Some are the size of small houses but full of seemingly impossible curves and giant arches. A closer look reveals that even the individual components are beautiful—tiny, handmade North Carolina bricks, or chalky Mexican bricks that have been painstakingly mortared to form immense structures. These parts come together in a complex way to form simple, softly curved sculptures sometimes 30 feet tall.

Wrapped by the jungly garden, they remind me of chimneys that stand in abandoned fields throughout the South—all that remain of sharecropper shanties. Given that Mrs. Norton grew up in Selma, Alabama, she may have had these images in mind, too.

Toward the end of her life, Mrs. Norton met the renowned British horticulturist Sir Peter Smithers. He designed and managed the planting of the garden, incorporating Norton’s sculptures with his own vision for a naturalistic community of plants based on a comprehensive collection of palms. There are specimens of every size and habit, and from every continent where palms are native. Most came from Fairchild Tropical garden in Miami, as well as from a few individual collectors.

On my last walk down one bright, coquina path, a head-high palm reached out to touch my arms, its yellow lines radiating inward toward the thickly woven burlap of its trunk. Here, the details of all sorts of tropical curiosities are right in your face. In other gardens, you may miss the velvet sexual parts of cycads or the brilliant red leaf sheath of a wax palm. Not here. The gardener wants you to be amazed. I think the artist wanted us to be amazed, too.

Worth growing

Contorted mulberry Morus bombycis ‘Unryu’

This J. C. Raulston introduction can quickly become a 30-foot tree in full sun, but I grow it as a large coppiced shrub by cutting it back to the ground with a chain saw in early March (I use the cut stems for trellises, stakes, and impromptu sculptures). Glossy summer leaves turn yellowish before dropping in November, showing off wild, spiraling stems against the winter sky. USDA Zones 5-8. Sources, page 84.

To do in the garden

  • If you are going to start seeds inside for summer planting, order a heating mat now. Heat mats help seeds germinate uniformly and remain in active growth, even in less-than-ideal spots (like the basement). A heat mat will pay for itself by helping you produce vigorous seedlings for spring planting.

  • Toward the end of the month, prune old roses, crape myrtles, and other summer-flowering woody plants to remove dead or crossing branches.

  • Fertilize early jonquils, spider lilies, Tommy crocuses (Crocus tommasinianus), paperwhites, and other bulbs that flowered in late fall through December. Their foliage is growing now, storing energy for next year’s flowers and preparing for dormancy.

  • Around the end of February, direct seed sugar snaps and mizuna.

  • Go to a botanical garden to see Prunus mume, Japanese flowering apricot, then plant one for yourself.

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