Southern Comfort

Plants, guests, and wildlife all feel at home in Mary Jane Baker’s North Carolina garden

by C. COLSTON BURRELL

On tree-lined Main Street in Carrboro, North Carolina, Mary Jane Baker’s lot stands out among the repetitious squares of tidy turf and blowsy azaleas. An exuberant perennial garden sweeps along the street, prompting passers-by to slow down. Bold foliage and bright flowers announce a carefully orchestrated color scheme in yellow, purple, and pink. In summer, huge purple-leaved cannas, salvias, richly colored daylilies, and mounding ornamental grasses replace the carpet of bulbs that starts the season in February. You immediately get an inkling that this gardener has a passion for both plants and design. When you pull into the driveway, through a break marked by a huge willow oak (Quercus phellos) and just large enough for a car, the garden envelops you like a friendly southern hug.

Baker, who has been designing gardens professionally for 18 years, has a warm smile and a welcoming manner. Strangers immediately feel comfortable in her company, and in her garden. “I grew up in the Mississippi Delta,” she says. “In the South, people don’t usually have front gardens. They don’t use colorful plants in the front of the house; it’s considered bad taste. What a lost opportunity,” she sighs. “Bold plants and loud colors make me feel good. They satisfy my wild and crazy side.” Baker’s wild streak is what makes her garden so captivating. “Once when I was working in the streetside bed,” she recalls, “a young kid went speeding by. He slammed on the brakes, backed up, and said, ‘You rock, you so rock!”’ ‘It’s just the kind of reaction that Baker loves. She wants the garden to be an in-your-face message to the community—go crazy, break the rules, have fun.

THE GARDEN COMES TO LIFE

Looking at the polished product of 11 years‘ labor, it is hard to imagine the garden’s humble beginnings. The horticultural legacy Baker inherited on this third of an acre was a foundation hedge of‘Nellie R. Stevens’ hollies as tall as the house and a few majestic shade trees in a sea of rough grass. The backyard was a thicket of large trees with a wall of bamboo eight feet deep across the back of the lot. “Even though I wanted a sunny garden,” she says, “I couldn’t bring myself to cut down the beautiful old trees in the front. They make the garden what it is.” Instead, Baker learned how to garden in the shade. “The willow oak on the street forms the garden’s entrance, and the huge oak in the center is a giant sculpture that I would keep even if it died.” The front became the cool, shady garden with its rich, sensual boundaries. The backyard was opened up to the sun.

The garden evolved as Baker lived on the site. “Unlike designing for clients, who want an entire garden at once,” she says, “I designed and planted my garden over many years. I didn’t have the budget to do it all at one time, so the garden came to life little by little.” A parking court serves as the jumping-off point for garden tours. Four paths diverge like the four rivers of life in a Moorish courtyard. Each path is a journey of discovery, filled with surprises and lined with special plants and spectacular color combinations. Visitors quickly discover that this small urban retreat is made for relaxation and socializing. At the end of every path you find a strategically placed sitting area, each with its unique architecture and ambiance. “I could never decide on just one style of a garden,” Baker says, “so I chose all my favorites. The series of separate rooms allows me to have a lot of different styles. Discrete spaces also let me grow a variety of plants in different contexts, without the garden looking like a plant collection. “Throughout the garden, Baker uses masses of low, mounding plants such as hellebores, grasses, and ferns to create smooth transitions and unify the overall planting scheme.

THE INNER SANCTUM

On the day of my visit, Baker takes me down a narrow path at the front of the garden to a canopied sitting area. A brilliant blue glider, echoing the drifts of fragrant blue wood phlox (P. divaricata), invites me to sit among an artful tangle of foliage and flowers. This canopied space lies near the street and is best enjoyed early in the morning or when the traffic has subsided for the day. The sturdy cedar pergola, one of many sculptures designed by artist friend Gordon Jameson, is placed in the corner to balance the large trees that frame the lot.

Beyond the sitting nook, the path moves through an inviting tapestry of horticultural treasures. Hellebores, ferns, and sedges create a rich, colorful composition. Passing by a diaphanous Japanese maple, the path spills into a rectangular lawn at the front of the house. With its brilliant blue garden furniture and complementary planting scheme, the front lawn is a perfect coffee spot. The morning sun pours through huge post oaks (Quercus stellata), spilling light across the small patch of grass. In spring, beds surrounding this lawn feature blue, purple, and yellow flowers, against which the periwinkle chairs and table glow. In place of traditional southern foundation plantings you find sweeps of irises, Phlox ‘Louisiana Purple’, phlomis, euphorbias, and cardoons accented with orange and apricot tulips. Cannas, elephant ears, and a huge hardy banana (Musa basjoo) anchor the borders throughout the summer months, while phlomis, wormwoods, and dwarf yaupon holly add winter structure.

Opposite: Garden designer Mary Jane Baker. Above: The white garden—which Baker says is for her “quiet side”—is tucked into a trapezoidal corner of the backyard. With its circular yaupon holly hedge, it cleverly imposes order on an awkward site.

This spot is also great on a summer evening. The soft carpet of grass, surrounded by blues and yellows, is the coolest, most refreshing spot in the garden. Fine textures dominate, with Japanese maples, mounding yellow sedges, and spiky gray-green Juncus ‘Carmen’s Gray’ against a backdrop of ferns. Bold textures are added with well-placed, brightly colored pots holding Canna ‘Bengal Tiger‘, hostas (planting in pots keeps them from being devoured by voles), night-fragrant angels’ trumpets (Brugmansia spp.), and elephant ears (Xanthosoma spp.). Baker recalls that “the delta is really a swamp, filled with intoxicating fragrances and the contrasting textures of huge plants. I like feeling dwarfed by my bold pots and big plants. It takes me back to when I was a kid playing by the creek under huge elephant ears.”

THE WHITE GARDEN

A narrow, shaded passageway leads through the side yard to the rear garden. In the dry shade of huge oaks, southern standards like aspidistra and Japanese rice paper plant (Tetrapanax papyrifera) provide lush foliage while a carpet of white-variegated ophiopogon and Carex siderosticha ‘Variegata’ lights up the shadows around an old cast-iron wash pot filled with papyrus and water ferns. “My mammaw [grandmother] boiled her hogs and washed her clothes in this pot,” Baker recalls. “Mother remembers using it as a swimming pool when she was little, and later planted caladiums in it. I brought it up from Mississippi and now it’s my water garden.”

The gate to the white garden is guarded by two pillars known as Cedarhenge, contrived by Baker and Gordon Jameson as a tribute to the ancient monoliths of Stonehenge. Stout cedar posts are topped by rounded boulders and open into yet another sitting area, this one an intimate space designated for evening gatherings, surrounded by white flowers.

The white garden’s basic structure consists of a circular lawn scarcely six feet across, ringed with a clipped hedge of dwarf yaupon holly. The entire space is a narrow trapezoid, an awkward shape for a garden. The circular form gives order, while lush plant-ings disguise the irregularity of the leftover pieces. Favorites such as southern magnolia (M. grandiflora), Crinum xpowellii ‘Album’, and hardy Chinese banana (Musa sikkimensis) obscure the boundaries, while shrubs such as ‘Dayspring’ oakleaf hydrangea and mock orange break up the lines of the fence. The feeling is a little bit Charleston, a little bit Sissinghurst.

White Prunus mume begins the winter season in the white garden, joined by hellebores, crocuses, and white daffodils like ‘Thalia‘, ‘Jenny’, ‘Avalanche‘, and ‘Petrel’. ‘Hally Jolivette‘ cherry and fragrant ‘Cayuga’ viburnum meld winter into the spring display, which includes ‘Sugar Thyme’ crab apples and fragrant Fothergilla gardenii. The white rose ‘Sombreuil’ covers the fence along with Clematis ‘Huldine‘. Phlox carries summer against a backdrop of rich green, joined in August by hydrangeas like ‘Tardiva’ and the subtly beautiful Hydrangea arborea subsp. radiata, with silvery undersides to the leaves and flat flower clusters. In autumn, asters and white colchicums tie up the season. “I come from a pretty raucous family,” Baker says, “and I am loud much of the time. The white garden is for my quiet side; a place where I can go to get away from myself. Sphinx moths are attracted to moonvines and other fragrant flowers, and I love watching them.”

Opposite, top: The perennial garden, which faces the street, is designed to give passers-by an eyeful of color. Opposite, center left: Baker’s bright blue lawn furniture is as important to the garden as any of the plants. Opposite, lower left: A view of the brick entrance patio. Opposite, lower right: “Cedarhenge,” a feature contrived by Baker and artist Gordon Jameson.

THE ATRIUM

Continuing the journey, lattice-covered pergolas form an embowered corridor, covered with akebia and white roses, that leads you from the white garden to the grand central atrium that dominates the back yard. “Because the delta is flat and open, I don’t always like to feel closed in,” Baker says. “I enjoy the sense of wildness and adventure I had as a child when enveloped by big leaves, but I like where I live to be more open.” Bounded by the house and the H-shaped pergola, this is the largest space in the garden, and the one where visitors gather. Baker is a consummate entertainer, and though it may seem contradictory, she designed the garden as both personal refuge and a place to share with friends and fellow gardeners. “I am a southerner. I always have to have a drink in my hand. In the evening I get a gin and tonic and start walking around the garden to see what’s happened that day. It usually takes several drinks to get all the way around.”

This disarmingly simple garden has many lessons to teach—how to artfully organize space, and how to sequence the journey through those spaces. But the most important lesson is that gardening should be fun. Baker believes that she has taken the best from her past and discarded the rest. “I am independent, like my mammaw. She smoked cigarettes, toted a gun, and ran a logging camp in the 1920s. I thought she was wonderful. For her and for my family, rules were made to be broken. I didn’t want to follow rules when I created my garden. I did everything for my own enjoyment, and it makes me happy that so many other people find pleasure in it too.” In Mary Jane Baker’s garden, family history, personal expression, intimate spaces, plants, and wildlife are all one. That’s the way it is, and the way it should be. H

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