A founding member, board member, and now director emerita of the Garden Conservancy, Louise Agee Wrinkle has long been a mainstay of our organization and mission. Returning to her childhood home in Alabama, Louise has spent the last thirty years caring for her magnificent property and honing in on her philosophy of minimalist gardening. Her new memoir, Listen to the Land, is a look inside the trials and joys of tending a garden with intention.
We recently spoke with Louise about her book and how she learned to listen to the voice of the land.
When and how did your interest in gardening and horticulture begin?
When I was a child in the l930s, entertainment and education came through books and nature. Thankfully, I grew up long before the ubiquitous TV and digital amusements plaguing us today. Both my parents were nature lovers and they taught me to appreciate the gifts of the surrounding environment.
My first consuming interest was horses, but during mid-life, my focus shifted. Thanks to my activity with the Garden Conservancy, Garden Club of America, and studies of ornamental horticulture, I became a plant nut.
The opportunity to pursue this new interest presented itself when I decided to move back to my family home and develop the surrounding woodland into a natural garden.
What prompted you to write Listen to the Land and what do you hope readers will gain from reading the book?
I started out simply wanting to create a record for my children and grandchildren of the work I’ve done here at my family home in Mountain Brook, Alabama. But as I began to write, I found myself articulating my philosophy of minimalist gardening. I strive to maintain a natural appearing state, and I prefer to avoid inserting “gardenesque” elements into the landscape. I hope readers will learn to listen to the land and learn to respect its individual character rather than imposing any artificial designs upon it.
Your book recalls stories about your return to your childhood property. What was it like returning as an adult? Did you view the property in a new light?
When I grew up there, the undeveloped property became part of my education. My sister and I were free to roam the neighborhood of woods and streams, an opportunity impossible today. My father was an avid birder and taught us the common names of the surrounding native trees: pines, maples, hickories, sourwoods, and persimmons, so we felt quite at home and I developed a strong bond with the place. This bond became much stronger when I moved back in mid-life because the place belonged to me and it was up to me to treat is responsibly. I wanted to recognize and highlight the varied topography that gives this place its unique character.
You’ve poured a lot of energy into your garden: what aspects of it are you most proud of?
I like for everything to look as if it belongs: nothing stands out as set in or set on. Many elements are subtle enough that they require a second look to be recognized. There are no garden rooms cut off from one another. One area flows into the next in a natural progression. One of my mentors is Thoreau who says, “simplify, simplify.” Another important mentor has been Russell Page who says, “it must be inevitable.” Also, I enjoy the fact that visitors often like to return after their first tour.
You’ve been involved with the Garden Conservancy since our founding in l989 and given much of your time as a Fellow and board member; what has your experience been like working so intimately with a likeminded community of garden enthusiasts over the years?
It was a tremendous honor to be asked to be a founding member of the Garden Conservancy and it opened my eyes to the importance of great gardens and their preservation, no matter where they are located. It is a pleasure and privilege to be associated with garden enthusiasts who share your common interest. For a number of years I participated in Open Days in Birmingham and shared proceeds with Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
Although it takes work to keep my garden ready for visitors, that’s what it’s all about. I love to have visitors whose minds I can pester to answer questions of my own. And it is reassuring to recognize the common passion for gardening whether the site is a patio or several acres.
Any other thoughts or remarks you'd like to share with our Fellows community?
As I grew up and my mother was starting this garden, she often reminded me to count my blessings, many of which surround us year round here. In spring, there is an exuberance of color and flower to dazzle us, but for those who can keep their eyes open, subtle changes of nature are available throughout the year. In summer, flowers morph into fruit and buds prepare for the coming year. In fall, brilliant color develops as chlorophyll departs from leaves. In winter the dramatic structure of trees and shrubs is revealed in full. I find there is always something to savor in my garden.
To learn more, read Louise’s new book, Listen to the Land.