“Mainly, to make my northern relatives jealous,” my friend Sue replied with a grin when asked what had prompted her to compile her list of the 60 species blooming in her garden on March 13, 2007. “They’ve got snow, and we’ve got things blooming!”
Now, Sue Swartz is the sweetest, most unassuming, kind-hearted, thoughtful person I know. More than once I’ve quipped to the Grubbers (our Tuesday-morning group of volunteers on the Huntsville Botanical Garden’s nature trail) that Sue makes Mother Teresa look like Cruella De Vil. But the garden she and her husband, Don, have created on their steep half-acre lot in a wooded Huntsville subdivision really is something to brag about, particularly in early spring.
In mid March, the Swartzes’ garden takes on a dreamlike quality. Puffy clouds of wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata) stir about the floor. Patches of prim blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia verna) vie for attention with the green leaves and glossy golden flowers of marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), Golden ragwort (Senecio aureus), celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), and the elegant trout lily (Erythronium americanum) mix bright touches of yellow and gold with the chilly blues of Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica) and Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans). There is the pristine white of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa), and Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). There are violets galore: birdfoot (Viola pedata), downy yellow (V. pubescens), and long-spurred (V. rostrata), to name a few. There are blushing toothworts (Cardamine diphylla and C. concatenata) husky Trillium cuneatum, and twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla). The candy-striped faces of spring beauties (narrow-leaved Claytonia virginica and broader C. caroliniana) twinkle along the pathways. Fire pink (Silene virginica) and the hummingbirds’ beloved trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) add sparks of scarlet to the scene. Early-blooming shrubs include not only the ubiquitous forsythia and evergreen azaleas, but such worthy natives as Fothergilla major, with its honey-scented bottlebrush flowers; fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica); and Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens).
Such a superb woodland garden did not come about quickly or easily. The garden’s design evolved over the years since Don and Sue moved to the South in 1977. Not a speck of lawn remains, and much of the Vinca minor (which was also in bloom on March 13) that originally served as groundcover in the rocky, sharply sloping yard has been replaced by beds of hosta, ferns, and wildflowers. A circulating stream, constructed by Don and Sue, tumbles diagonally down and across a portion of the backyard. The National Wildlife Federation has certified the garden as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat site; skunks, skinks, possums, rabbits, coyotes, raccoons, assorted snakes, and dozens of bird species have been spotted here. The “rock garden” in the front yard features rocks collected on the Swartzes’ travels. Pride of place is granted to a stone shaped like their native Illinois.
In a nook below the stream stands a realistic metal sculpture of a tree holding two gold birds and an empty nest. Sue modestly describes it as “just a rusty old tree,” but she commissioned it from Alabama sculptor Terry Boyd as a surprise for Don, to commemorate their 50th wedding anniversary. The base of the sculpture bears a pair each of Jacks-in-the-pulpit and lady’s slippers, representing the couple’s four children. It’s a lifelong love story: Sue Danenberger, whose famil