In historic Hillsborough, North Carolina, a passionate gardener pays homage to an old landscape while making it her own
Nancy Goodwin is a plantswoman, author, and most of all a gardener. Nancy and her husband, Craufurd, spent 10 years searching for the perfect piece of land to call home. They chose the town of Hillsborough for the quality of its soil and, in 1977, found a 61-acre property that had been owned by three generations of the Graham family, who had named it Montrose after their ancestral Scottish home. The Goodwins have preserved the older buildings and gardens while creating new ones.
Nancy added this tiny secret garden in the 1980s. It has a sitting area with wrought iron furniture and a planted iron kettle.
A small vegetable garden along the iron fence is filled with an assortment of tomatoes, chard, beans, cucumbers, okra, and
A generous planting of golden variegated sweet flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’) fills the kettle, with golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) spilling out and onto the gravel below.
Montrose has many enduring buildings and gardens. The oldest ones were put there by William Alexander Graham, a 19th-century governor of North Carolina, and his wife, Susan Washington Graham. An old kitchen, a barn, a smokehouse, a law office, a serpentine boxwood border, open lawns, and soaring trees are all on the property. Newer gardens include the May Garden, Aster Border, Circle Garden, Snowdrop Woods, Color Garden, Dianthus Walk, and even an area called Nandinaland. Old and new, these gardens and structures have been artistically woven together to create the existing landscape.
You enter the striking Tropical Garden through an oversize wooden arbor designed to relate new plantings to the scale of larger, existing buildings, such as the barn. One of the newer gardens at Montrose, it seems to play with light. It’s full of varied textures and defined by the foliage of yuccas, agaves, irises, gingers, and bananas.
The exotic foliage of Japanese bananas (Musa basjoo) that enclose this garden draws your eye through the lath house, which covers the Shade Garden, and beyond. “The Tropical Garden is a place for bold foliage and bright-colored flowers,” Nancy says. “We planted cannas, selecting them more for their foliage than for flowers. Poppies with brilliant flowers provide late-spring interest, and dahlias, phlox, and lion’s tails with flowers in shades of red, hot pink, and orange put on a brilliant show in summer.” She supplements the plantings with tender agaves (set in gravel or pots) and elephant’s ears (Alocasia and Colocasia) to get a tropical look.
Japanese bananas (Musa basjoo) that enclose the garden are quite happy in the rolling hills of the North Carolina Piedmont. Pink bananas, gingers, agaves, yuccas, swamp sunflowers, and salvias fill this garden with bold texture and bright colors. Tropical foliage gives a strong feeling of enclosure and defines this space.
A lath house defines the Shade Garden and leads to a lushly planted urn in the Color Garden.
Just beyond the Shade Garden is the Blue and Yellow Garden, defined by flowers and foliage in varying shades of those colors. “The Blue and Yellow Garden keeps its color through the year using blue- or yellow-tinted conifers, a holly with variegated foliage, and even a cactus with a bluish cast in winter,” Nancy says. “The main feature of the garden is its peaceful character.”
A vintage sorghum pot is filled with cold-hardy succulents that bloom in the fall with flowers that attract masses of bees and need little water.
This garden, like others at Montrose, reflects the talents of many gardeners who’ve helped Nancy over the years. In time,
it will evolve from being a private garden to a public one, thanks to the generosity of the Goodwins and help from The Garden
Conservancy. Nancy loves the idea of a new generation of gardeners becoming stewards of this North Carolina treasure.
Montrose offers guided garden tours by appointment throughout the year ($10 adults; $5 ages 6 to 12). It holds an open day in the spring and again in the fall, during which admission is free and you can stroll at your leisure. For advance notice of open days, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. You might also enjoy Nancy’s book Montrose: Life in a Garden, available at amazon.com.