Gardener Nancy Goodwin

by BOBBY J. WARD portrait BOB RIVES

Nancy Goodwin has been a gardener in spirit and in deed all her life. Growing up in Durham County, North Carolina, she learned at an early age about plants and nature from her parents, on weekend country drives and in the family vegetable garden. She helped clear the land on which her mother and father would eventually build their home.

Montrose, her own garden, is located in the North Carolina Piedmont on the outskirts of Hillsborough. She and her husband, Craufurd, purchased the 60-acre property, which borders the Eno River, in 1977, and Nancy Goodwin began gardening on 20 acres of rich clay loam—“the best dirt there is,” her father once told her. In time, gardeners and plantsmen would come to know her from her horticultural writings and through Montrose Nursery, renowned as a mail-order source of seed-grown cyclamen and other unusual plants.

Goodwin admits that whenever she is speaking indoors to an audience about her garden, her eyes involuntarily gaze outside; she would rather be digging and planting. During her first few years at Montrose, she put her music degree from Duke University to use by teaching harpsichord and piano, all the while monitoring bud development of hellebores, snowdrops, and crocuses through the music room window. But the garden was a “large, powerful magnet,” she says, and eventually she gave up teaching to devote her time to the garden and, later, the nursery, which opened in 1984.

Gardening and writing about gardening became her obsessions. “I am a gardener; it’s the main core of my life,” she says. She edited an abandoned manuscript by Elizabeth Lawrence, A Rock Garden in the South (Duke University Press, 1990). She and Paul Jones expanded the manuscript to add plants Lawrence did not include. She is the coauthor of A Year in Our Gardens: Letters by Nancy Goodwin and Allen Lacy (University of North Carolina Press, 2001), a year’s correspondence between herself and Lacy, a New Jersey garden writer. She has kept a daily journal of her life at Montrose, and her latest book, Montrose: Life in a Garden (Duke University Press, 2005), chronicles a single year in the garden, interlaced with earlier reminiscences. Allen Lacy comments that this biography of Montrose “stands out as the best American garden book of the past 15 years.”

Goodwin’s horticultural interests are catholic, encompassing raising plants from seed, rock gardening, little bulbs, and woodland plants. For gardening magazines and society journals, she has written about dianthus, winter gardening (her favorite season), primroses, daffodils, rain lilies, hellebores, and cyclamens (she has grown 18 of the 19 known species, building up her collection from seed, not wild-collected tubers). She co-founded the Piedmont Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society and has been a frequent judge at the Philadelphia Flower Show.

Goodwin has been at Montrose for nearly three decades and has developed it into a series of beds, borders, and smaller gardens, based on plant combinations, season of bloom, color, or habitat. She closed the successful nursery in 1993, because the burden of shipping plants and meeting customers’ demands left little time for real gardening. She “put on [her] knee pads and went back to the garden,” where she found “peace and contentment” with her hands in the dirt. Her small staff began to devote more time to planning and planting the garden and to organizing special events. She and Craufurd have a shared interest in the Bloomsbury group of British writers, artists, and intellectuals; they host workshops and seminars about the group at Montrose. Annual open garden days continue to draw visitors from near and far, as do weekly tours arranged by appointment. A few select plants she and the staff raise can be purchased on tour days.

The Goodwins’ interest in preservation of gardens has led to their working with the Garden Conservancy and the North Carolina Triangle Land Conservancy to ensure Montrose’s continuation. “Gardeners are optimists,” Nancy says. “We believe tomorrow, next week, or next year will be better.” H

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