Duke University Alumni Magazine


Goodwin: immersed in training a cypress vine around a rose bush to create an arbor
Photo: Les Todd

When Nancy Sanders Goodwin came to Montrose, she discovered a place she would never have to leave. What she planted here, she would see mature.

even-year-old Nancy Sanders' task in the garden was to coax a bloom from the iris plant under the pine tree her father had cut back. Just keep the rhizome uncovered, her parents told her, and come April the iris should bloom as brightly as the rest of the springtime flowers in the family garden.

So Nancy visited the pine tree every day, all winter long, to squat down and brush away the pine needles and dirt that might have drifted around the base of her iris. Neither the cold air nor the routine got to her. Some days she went twice.

Controlled chaos: above, cyclamen in SeptemberŃnot a day passes at Montrose without some variety of this flower in bloom; right, yuccas and artemisias in the circle garden in May; above right, echeveria, salvias, dahlias, helianthus, cannas, yucca, and grasses at the end of the summer john m. hall john m. hall john m. hall les todd Goodwin: immersed in training a cypress vine around a rose bush to create an arbor
Photo: John M. Hall

Come April, her father's trees and shrubs were greening, the result of his talent for conditioning the clay of Durham, North Carolina, into good gardening soil. Her mother's springtime wildflowers were blooming in a stunning pattern of colors and textures. But Nancy's iris was bare.

Year after year, Nancy tended the reluctant iris. The cut-back pine tree eventually grew full again, the family's garden prospered, but the plant assigned to Nancy never did bloom. Seeing so each April, Nancy felt a terrible letdown, followed quickly by the conviction that next year would be different. Maybe she had let one pine needle lie across the rhizome, she would think. Next year she would make that iris bloom.

It would be many years before Nancy Sanders Goodwin '58 could think back on the iris and see the lesson there. It was the cultivation of patience, a cardinal virtue for any gardener. Today, Goodwin's garden is one of the most famous private gardens in the country. The girl who couldn't get the iris to bloom is now a member of the Royal Horticulture Society, a columnist for Country Living magazine's gardening section, and author of an upcoming book about gardening. She has also written dozens of magazine and journal articles on gardening. She and her husband, Duke economics professor Craufurd Goodwin Ph.D.'58, have cultivated about one-third of Montrose, their sixty-one-acre estate in Hillsborough, North Carolina, which is listed in the Hillsborough Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

But the path from the iris to Montrose was long. Goodwin majored in music at Duke, where her father was a professor of English. She graduated a year early. During college, she met Craufurd Goodwin, then a graduate student in economics. They married and moved away for a few years, but in 1962 they returned to Durham. Soon afterward, they bought the house of Duke history professor William Hamilton on Cranford Road, near campus. They had a little bit of land there--just under an acre--so she started to make a garden. That's just what people did, she thought, when they had some land.

Soon she felt drawn to that garden as she had to nothing before, not even the iris. She had begun taking music students in her home, but she spent as much time as she could spare in the garden. She looked at every single plant every day. She read stacks of books about plants and gardening, especially about gardening in the South. She memorized the names of plants by genus and species, making lists of the names of plants she wasn't familiar with so that she could search for living examples.

Within two years the couple had outgrown the Cranford Road garden and began looking for a home with more land. That's when Goodwin remembered something her father had spoken of for years: how desirable the soil was in Hillsborough, just a twenty-minute drive from Duke. His words reverberated in her head: Hillsborough was nestled in the Great Triassic Basin, she remembered his saying, where for thousands of years the rains had deposited the best topsoil from the Triangle region. He would have traded Durham's clay for that loamy soil any day. Nancy decided it was Hillsborough's dirt she wanted for her next garden--and she would wait however long it took to get it.

She and Craufurd sat down and made a list of places they would like to buy in Hillsborough. Near the top of the list was Montrose, sixty-one acres on the outskirts of the town, set off by a wall in front and forests all around. They didn't know much else about the place other than what was written in the historical records. Since the early nineteenth century, the land had been owned by the family of William Alexander Graham, governor of North Carolina from 1845 to 1849 and U.S. Secretary of the Navy from 1850 to 1852, and his wife, Susan Washington Graham. Coincidentally, Craufurd and the Grahams shared family roots going back to the mid-nineteenth century. They knew that, and they knew Montrose would have good soil--but the rest was a mystery.

From time to time, they would drive to the height of land next to Montrose to look over and see what was there. But they couldn't see it, and they would never have asked. For ten more years, the Goodwins remained on Cranford Road, waiting and wondering. Then one day in 1977 came a call from Montrose. The elder Graham had died, and the family intended to sell the estate. A neighbor in Hillsborough had mentioned the Goodwins might be interested in getting their name on the list for consideration. Would they care to come look?

Montrose was everything the Goodwins had hoped to find. It was April, and the kitchen garden had just been plowed. Nancy looked at the dark, rich soil and said to the Grahams, "You know, I really want to work with this garden."

The Graham family took from April to July to decide who would be the next owners of Montrose. Those months seemed longer, she says, than the whole ten years before. Finally, the call came: Montrose was theirs.

Foam of flowers: A Mary Wallace rose covers the entrance into the burgundy-and-gold garden, where white garland roses cover the lath house in May
Photo: John M. Hall

Once Nancy had her dirt, though, she felt a hesitation she hadn't expected. Could she handle the tremendous responsibility? Would she do something wrong? So she took time to study what was there, turning up just enough soil to inspect roots, stems, and bulbs. From her garden on Cranford Road, she dug up and brought all the things she thought she could grow again--all the old-fashioned bulbs and plants she doubted would be available on the market, and especially the legacies from her parents' garden. She soon realized that those were exactly the kinds of plants she found growing at Montrose.

North Carolina had a hot, dry summer the year the Goodwins moved to Montrose. She waited until October to dig, but what she found once she began--the kinds of bulbs, and the sheer numbers of them--intimidated her. Again, she stopped, until far into the next year, until she felt she had learned more about what she had.

She says it was like an archaeological excavation. She discovered an enormous narcissus, types of shrubs she had never known before, and evidence of an old perennial border. And finally, in the spring, with a better idea of what she could do, she let Craufurd plow up the land along a row of boxwood bushes in front of the house.

And that is when she began gardening at Montrose. She was joyful, and awed. Here was a garden she would never have to leave. What she planted here, she would see mature.

The urge to learn all she could about plants --the urge she had first felt in the garden on Cranford Road--grew stronger. She had to figure out how to get into the garden more. She was still teaching music, and on pretty days it was almost painful to be inside. So in 1984 Goodwin came up with a plan: She would run a mail-order nursery in the mornings and take students only a few afternoons each week. And maybe, if all went well, the nursery would get big enough that she could quit teaching altogether.

In all her learning about plants, she had discovered that many types of cyclamen were endangered and were being smuggled out of Europe. But she had grown them relatively easily from seed for years in Durham. Maybe, she thought, there were other people like her who wanted access to those varieties of cyclamen. Indeed, there were. In 1986 she gave up music to work full-time on her Montrose nursery, which became well known among gardening societies and publications. She settled into a new rhythm: Twice a year, in January and July, she'd send out nursery catalogues and, while they were in the mail, devote a full week to nothing but gardening.

But even that project was not enough to satisfy her need to garden. There had to be a way to work there full time.

In gardening, says Goodwin, there are always deaths. In the background, a time-card clock loudly ticks off the seconds, the sound echoing off the cement floor. Goodwin is in a workroom in one of the nineteenth-century outbuildings behind the main house of Montrose. Her gardens are so extensive now that she's thrilled to have two paid employees. She says she wishes she had another. This is their potting-up room. Three large workbenches are pushed against the walls of the building. Stacks of clean pots abound. There's soil and the other materials, like sand and lime, that she'll mix with the soil according to a plant's needs.

Above her workbench is a shelf with books of records. Goodwin reaches to pull them down and lays them open on her bench. If there is a failure in the garden, at least she and her employees have a thorough record of it, for reference in seasons to come. Every Sunday, like clockwork, she sits down at her Macintosh with the week's checklist and enters everything that was done that week. The temperature each day, what was planted, what seeds were gathered, which plants were taken up and divided, which areas were weeded--it's all here. At the end of each year, the computer produces two spreadsheets, one alphabetized by plant name and one a listing by month of everything that was accomplished in the garden.

Her Eden kept: To create this scree garden, seen in early summer, Goodwin has planted phloxes, alyssum, iris, and dwarf conifers, among others
Photo: John M. Hall

Sometimes the solutions are fairly simple: She'll substitute a plant here, change the shape of a border there. Another of her solutions is mulch, and lots of it. Mulch holds the moisture in the ground during the hot summers and conditions the soil. It's simple, she concedes, but it makes it all possible.

One of the simple realities of gardening is that extensive records of failure and death accompany the work of bringing thousands of plants and flowers to life. Another reality is the extent to which the failures determine the shape and contents of the gardens.

When she got to Montrose, she had no overall vision for how the garden should eventually look. It's evolved the way it has partly as a result of problems. Early on, for example, the UPS delivery driver would drive his truck straight through the grass in front of the house. The Goodwins planted a garden there that said clearly, Don't drive here. The area happened also to be an especially hot and dry bank, so many of the plants she chose for the bed are native to Texas. Several years after the UPS incident, a visitor drove through the center of one of the front gardens. A six-foot-tall black urn, overflowing with flowering plants, now blocks that route.

In Goodwin's mind, the challenges that have shaped the gardens at Montrose fall into two categories. First, there's the matter of color. The building that houses this potting-up room, for example, gave her all kinds of problems. It's built with an old tile she found was a difficult color to work with. After worrying about it for a while, she decided on purples and yellows, colors she now thinks do go well. The area also happens to be dry because the roots of a nearby tree grow through there--so only certain plantings of purples and yellows would do.

Her second challenge lies in making a garden that doesn't require extra water. The Goodwins chose not to irrigate the property, save for one embankment at the edge of the estate where a shopping mall was built nearby. Nor do they spray chemicals for insects or weeds. Montrose is big, and it would be crazy, she believes, to try to manipulate too much of this place in order to grow things that don't want to grow here. But she does make one exception--there are large pots scattered through the garden. Some simply act as a focal point along a path, but most are there to hold the plants she knows won't grow without a little extra water. She is determined, she says, to grow the impossible, and the pots help her do that.

Joyful work: Goodwin has massed a variety of plants near the lath house, including castor beans, elephant ears, datura, and a yellow-blossomed relative of okra, abelmoschus
Photo: Les Todd

Besides those two challenges are the ones nature throws at all gardeners--fallen trees, droughts, extremes of heat and cold. Goodwin's gardens are known not just for their beauty and variety, but also for the fact that she's achieved that beauty and variety in a tough Southern climate. The key, she explains, lies in letting the garden be as self-regulated as possible: Let go and let the plants show you where they will thrive. Does one plant creep under the border and push up through the brick walkway? That's fine. Does another plant seed itself in the garden pathway and decide it's happier in the gravel than the dirt? Goodwin lets it go.

This is exactly the kind of balance she tries to strike, she says, pointing at the plant in the path: How much to leave so that the garden looks natural, yet not decadent? She recalls with laughter an editor who called from New York one day a couple of years ago. A photographic exhibit was being planned, the editor said, featuring--the editor hesitated--featuring overgrown gardens. And several sources had suggested Goodwin's.

Clearly, those people just didn't get it. What she's really after, she explains, is controlled chaos.

But it was the events Goodwin could not control that shaped some of her most treasured areas of the garden. Early in 1992, a piece of Montrose history was lost: A huge cucumber magnolia written up in old Governor Graham's papers slowly leaned and fell in front of the house--a victim of age and gravity. Just a few months later, Nancy Goodwin's mother died. Then the husbands of two of her employees at the time died. And then, in the summer, Johanna Petty, a young woman from Hillsborough who for years had come to work in the gardens, was killed in an automobile accident.

The time was out of joint. Something, Goodwin said to herself, was wrong. She had to put it right, and she could do that, she became sure, by getting into the garden full time. So she gave her nursery customers a year's notice--Montrose Nursery would send out just two more catalogues. In 1994, she finally got to the garden full time. It took her a long, long time. But with that decision, she says emphatically, her life really began.

Among her first projects as a full-time gardener were memorials to the people whose deaths had led her to renew her passion for the garden. One area, called the Memorial Garden, or Jo's Garden, is just steps from the potting-up room. Goodwin walks the path through the area speaking matter-of-factly about how she planted this area. Johanna's birth and death dates were in July and August, so the flowers here peak during those months, she says. This year, in mid-summer, a tree fell and smashed the bench nestled among the flowers. Johanna's mother visits on her daughter's death date each year. Goodwin has already called her to let her know the area looks a little bruised this year.

And down that hill and into the woods, she says, turning and pointing with an outstretched arm, is the Mother-in-Law Walk. Craufurd's mother had died one February, leaving some bulbs on order that she never got planted. Craufurd and Nancy took those bulbs to the woods and planted them in honor of his mother. Then, when Nancy's mother died, she left some new wildflowers. The Goodwins took them and planted them in the same area. Nancy thinks of her mother when she walks among those wildflowers today. Some of her happiest memories of her mother, she says, are when something would bloom for the first time in the garden on Pinecrest Road. She would be ecstatic, and she'd call the whole family to go look at the bloom together.

Suddenly, Goodwin stops short on the pathway, bends down, and strokes the brown leaves of a failing plant. Every now and then, she says, straightening back up, you see somebody who's given up the ghost, so you just pull it out and put something else in. This one was supposed to be an annual, but it's been here five years. All that means, she says, is that its time was up.

There's a certain kind of cyclamen that prefers to grow in the Alps. But Nancy Goodwin learned how to make that kind of cyclamen bloom, year after year, here in the hot, dry North Carolina summers. Cyclamen are classified in the same family as another kind of flower called shooting stars, she says--see how the petals are thrust backwards, making the flowers look as if they're upside-down?

It's hard to appreciate the gracefulness of a cyclamen plant without squatting down low to the ground, as Goodwin is doing at the edge of her cyclamen bed in front of Montrose. The July day is misty and strangely cool. She brushes the dark, soaked mulch and pine straw aside with bare fingers, looking for the disc-shaped tubers that in a few weeks should begin sending out the first stems of some of her dearest plants. Then one cyclamen catches her eye and she reaches out to stroke a leaf with one finger. See how each plant's leaves have a slightly different pattern? she says, gently turning leaves into the light to reveal varying blotches of greens and the occasional pink or silver. The details fascinate her. She could look at them for hours. When she had the nursery, she says, it used to kill her sometimes to close the box on the plants and send them off to customers.

Once she got good at growing cyclamen, Goodwin gave herself a gift. Today there's not a day at Montrose without cyclamen blooming somewhere. Her fascination with details--the slightest variation in leaf patterns, the plants pushing up in unexpected places--makes an ordinary task like weeding into a kind of treasure hunt. It's the surprise she enjoys, maybe the plant that's decided it likes it well enough in an unusual area to produce seeds she can collect and use to create a drift of plants. Or maybe it's a variegation she can separate from a plant, grow, seed, and use to grow a plant with a new look. Usually they will come true from seed. Discoveries like that are one of the most exciting things about the garden.

More than two thousand people--individuals, garden clubs, and horticultural societies --tour Montrose each year to share Goodwin's excitement and knowledge about gardening. One rainy day, four tourists arrive in cars with license plates from Alabama and Virginia. They walk behind Goodwin through the gardens, holding umbrellas in one hand and pointing at or touching leaves and flowers with the other. Goodwin herself does not carry an umbrella; instead, she's wearing a rain slicker with the hood pulled over her short, gray hair. Bits of wet grass cling to her rubberized gardening shoes.

She says she prefers these smaller groups to the bus tours that sometimes stop at the base of the driveway to Montrose. You can have real conversations with a few people; it's not so much of a lecture. Some tourists take more interest in the details than others, and the tour will last anywhere from a half-hour to several hours, depending on how interested the tourists seem. Every now and then, someone will go through the whole tour and then turn and ask about her gardening, "Now, why do you do this?" She does not feel that question is worth answering.

The tourists in today's group don't seem like the kind to ask such a question. Two of them are a couple, perhaps in their early sixties, of Japanese descent, who have driven down from the Washington, D.C., area for the day. The other two are friends, two women from a small town in Alabama. They elbow each other excitedly when one of them spots a plant in Goodwin's garden that she's got growing back home.

"I know why you don't ever get to leave here," one of the Alabama women says to Goodwin. "You must be working all the time!"

"Well, I know," Goodwin replies. "But work is in the eye of the beholder."

Work and joy come together in gardening --a notion that's never lost on Goodwin. And with the tour group gone and the rain letting up, leaving a glistening layer of water on the leaves and flowers all around her, she walks over to the cyclamen bed to take another look at her favorites. A cat follows her, lifting its legs comically high to trot through the wet grass. Over this way, there's something very special to her.

Of the six species of cyclamen here, there's at least one that ought to be blooming. Maybe as early as now. She strikes a familiar pose, squatting down and brushing the mulch around. There! she exclaims. Look! It's coming--the first bloom for the year! It's a rare, tender cyclamen, sending out its first flower of the season.

Davis '91, A.M. '00, a former Duke Magazine intern, is editor and associate publisher of QSR magazine, a business journal for the fast-food industry.

Letter from a Garden

Splendid additions: Along the Montrose paths, a border shows bright with dahlias, verbena, and cannas
Photo: John M. Hall

Sunday, October 4, 1998

Dear Allen,

Last night, Craufurd taught his evening seminar, so we had an uncivilized early supper. It was still bright outdoors when he left, and I took a little tour of the gardens, starting with the purple and orange border, which should more accurately be called burgundy and gold. The fence at the entrance was rampant with vines and climbers--"Mary Wallace" rose, Clematis terniflora (in seed), and Dolichos lablab, whose upright panicles of pale purple flowers combined spectacularly with the intense orange flowers of a tall Tithonia rotundifolia, still bolt upright for lack of windstorms to knock it over. Chiming in and adding to the ensemble were several coleus--black-leaved "Duckfoot"; "Inky Fingers," an unidentified cultivar with black stems and green, chartreuse, and cream leaves veined with red-violet; and "Leprechaun Lace," from your cuttings of last May. This one is a fine addition to my coleus collection, for it is very large and bright.

I stood for a while at the entrance to this part of the garden, enjoying the scent of Heliotropium arborescens, wafting up to me its pure vanilla fragrance, bringing with it all of the overtones of my grandmother's garden. We planted an old and leaky galvanized tub with a large Setaria palmifolia, with dark purple stems and pleated leaves veined with red-violet.

The most splendid additions to the display yesterday evening were eight monarch butterflies with wings in two shades of orange combined with jet black. Farther down the path, Salvia "Van-Houttei" was in full bloom. This salvia combines nicely with the blue-green foliage and brilliant scarlet and yellow flowers of the Asclepias curassavica that has seeded itself into the gravel pathway. And last night, amidst all this floral tapestry, a splendid writing spider with golden yellow stripes and patches and long black legs was spinning a web connecting Salvia "Van-Houttei" to Canna "Wyoming."

I did not walk alone through the garden, for I had a young black and white cat with me. When I knelt to examine plants, he thought (rightly!) I needed someone to pet. I kept on walking, past the purple and orange border, pausing in front of my enormous plant of Dahlia imperialis, and hoping that this might be the year I see it bloom before we get frost.

As daylight faded toward evening and I began to walk back to the house, I caught sight of two fawns and their mother in the distance. I went toward them, and they came toward me, until we were only about fifteen feet apart. The magnificent buck joined them, and we all stood and stared at each other, until I finally left and broke up the party.

--From A Year in Our Gardens, Letters by Nancy Goodwin '58 and Allen Lacy '56, Ph.D. '62. Illustrations by Martha Bell Blake-Adams '56. Forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.

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