BY CAROL BISHOP MILLER / Huntsville, Alabama, USDA Zone 7
Aldridge Gardens Events
Mother’s Day Weekend Plant Sale (hydrangeas only—over two dozen varieties), May 7 and 8. Hydrangea Weekend, June 4–6. For more information, call 205-682-8019 or visit www.aldridgegardens.com. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.
Even as a child, Eddie Aldridge liked hydrangeas. “It’s one of the first plants I remember as a little boy,” says the second-generation Alabama nurseryman. “We put dormant cuttings of Asian hydrangeas into four-inch pots on the first of February and forced them into flower in the greenhouse for Mother’s Day.” Now Aldridge is the driving force behind a new botanical garden devoted to showcasing the genus Hydrangea.
It was in 1966 that Aldridge first laid eyes on the rolling, wooded property that was to become the garden that would bear his family’s name, when he was asked by the owner to plant a trio of southern magnolias by the seven-acre lake below the house. When, 12 years later, the owner’s yardman mentioned to Aldridge that the property was for sale, Aldridge took his father, Loren, to see it. “If this property doesn’t cost more than a million dollars, I’d buy it,” advised the elder nurseryman, “because it could make a public garden some day.” Aldridge bought the land.
His father died later that year, “and that propelled our thinking,” Aldridge says. He quickly bought the adjacent three-and-a-half-acre corner lot as well, for a total of 30 acres. For nearly two decades, Aldridge lived in the spacious, ranch-style house and gradually turned the grounds into a showplace, installing great, curving sweeps of the popular ‘Snowflake’ oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia ‘Snowflake’; pictured), which he and his father had introduced to the trade, planting a now-mature camellia grove, and trialing colorful bedding plants for his nursery.
Meanwhile, Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham, was exploding around the property, and, sensing the time was right, Aldridge and his wife, Kay, arranged to convey the property to the city of Hoover, with the council resolving to preserve it in perpetuity as a garden and park. The nonprofit Aldridge Gardens, Inc., contracts with the city to develop and manage the garden, which formally opened to the public on June 1, 2001. Featuring mass plantings of some 27 varieties of at least four hydrangea species, Aldridge Gardens aims to offer its anticipated 150,000 to 200,000 annual visitors a chance to view the world’s largest collection of hydrangeas.
The Aldridges’ former home has been converted into office space and a venue for wedding receptions, corporate dinners, and other special events. And though the garden is being developed in accordance with a master plan created by a prominent firm of public garden designers, Aldridge is adamant that it retain its parklike appearance and not be “overplanned and overplanted.” He takes special pride in the garden’s intern program, which draws horticultural students from universities throughout the South. The entrance drive and areas adjacent to the house feature immaculately groomed beds blending colorful, richly textured tropical and temperate plants. A stream bubbles down a wooded hillside through a shade garden and spills into the lake beside the house. A half-mile trail winds around the lake, passing a sunny wildflower meadow and meandering through the woods, giving visitors the illusion of being far out in the country. Notes Don Barber, the garden’s executive director, “This 30-acre urban garden allows visitors a spot to step off the fast lane and decompress.” H
Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snowflake’
This popular selection of the Southeast’s native oakleaf hydrangea (USDA Zones 5–9) almost wasn’t. Loren Aldridge took three cuttings of an unusual form found near Birmingham with exceedingly long inflorescences on which new sepals continued to emerge over older ones for several weeks, making the sterile flowers appear double. Mistaking the rooted cuttings for weeds, an employee pulled them up and tossed them into the garbage, where two died before Aldridge rescued the lone survivor from which the majestic ‘Snowflake’ was cloned. Eddie Aldridge’s recipe for success with hydrangeas is to grow them in no more than 60 and no less than 40 percent shade (except for H. paniculata ‘Grandiflora’, which needs sun). Provide ample water and excellent drainage, elevating plants grown in irrigated areas. Sources, page 96.