Text by Vicki Ingham
The only thing Rhonda Montgomery enjoys more than tending her garden is buying new plants to put in it. That’s why spring is her favorite season.
After 25 years, Rhonda’s garden doesn’t need much in the way of new shrubs and trees, but every year she looks forward to shopping for annuals. They’re destined for the antique iron and concrete urns that she places strategically in the landscape. Pebble paths wind among beds filled with azaleas, dogwoods, irises, Lenten roses, and hydrangeas. Statues representing the four seasons punctuate the path, which features stepping stones made of broken pieces of china embedded in concrete.
Rhonda comes by her love of gardening naturally. Following in her father’s
footsteps, Rhonda has filled the back yard with azaleas in hues of pink, white, and red. Her grandparents on both sides of the family were avid gardeners. “Every Sunday we went to see both sets of grandparents, and the last thing we’d do was walk around the garden. I’d always come home with a bouquet,” she recalls. Her father planted the corner lot of their home with irises, peonies, and 400 azaleas. “They called him the Azalea Baron,” she says. “People think I live in the yard,” Rhonda exclaims, “and I do! I’m as happy as a clam out there. I tell my husband, ‘You are so lucky to have a wife who only needs pine straw and cow manure to be happy!’”
Boxwoods line the brick path that follows a graceful curve to the smilax-framed front door. Sun-and heat-tolerant Kimberly Queen ferns flank the front door. The small patch of lawn on the right is the only grass in the garden. “Years ago, I knew I wouldn’t have help with the garden—my husband doesn’t do yard work,” she explains. “Since I wanted to have something blooming all the time, I bought all these fabulous urns at estate sales. My plan was to get the yard looking good, and then I would just put plants in the pots.” Executing the first part of her plan—getting the yard looking good—proved to be more of a challenge than she had anticipated, however. Two years after the Montgomerys moved in, fierce straight-line winds uprooted ancient oaks, bringing mature trees crashing down. The Montgomery yard was hit hard, with nine big pines destroyed. It took a year to clean up the mess, and when it was over, Rhonda was faced with a drastically different environment to work with since so many trees were gone.
“I had been saving magazine pictures since the storm,” she says, “and I had a vision for the yard.” By happy chance, she ran into Rick Avery, whom she knew from a local nursery. His garden so impressed her that she asked him for help. Rick came to see her yard, looked at her inspiration pictures, and understood immediately what she wanted and how to achieve it. Rick laid the paths, planted trees and shrubs, and built rock walls and terraces using stones he dug up on the property. Even now, with the garden well established, he comes every spring, and they decide on a project. “He has such a creative, artistic eye,” says Rhonda. “I couldn’t have done this without him. He has put his heart and soul into this garden.” And so has she. Rising at 5:30 a.m., she drinks a quick cup of coffee and is out in the yard by 6:30 a.m.—weeding, watering, pinching back, and deadheading.
When Rhonda’s husband nixed her idea of painting the house pink (like Monet’s), she painted the wrought-iron garden furniture instead. The wisteria had been growing up a pine tree, and when the tree died, Rhonda had an arbor built to support the vine. Although the yard was overgrown when Rhonda and her husband moved in, it had once been its previous owner’s pride and joy. Old-fashioned plants such as sweet shrub, ginger lilies, Lenten roses, camellias, smilax, and a magnificent wisteria had survived years of neglect and were worked into the new design. The soil was also in good condition, and Rhonda continues to improve it. Every fall the beds are raked clean, and she applies a thin layer of composted cow manure over the soil. A week or two later, she has fresh pine straw put down to protect the plants over the winter.