Miss Welty’s Garden, 2011
I was faced with a choice when I arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, last Wednesday just before noon. Jackson’s east side and downtown—what you see coming into town from the airport—have lots of interesting old buildings that are great material for photographers. The sun was high and there was just the kind of sharp contrast that would have made for some neat black-and-white photographs.
But there was also the prospect of visiting the Eudora Welty house. I don’t usually make a practice of visiting deceased writers’ home. But in addition to being a wonderful writer Miss Welty was also an enthusiastic gardener and photographer. So I opted to visit Miss Welty’s house.
It’s accurate to refer to the Tudor Revival residence on Pinehurst Street as “Eudora Welty’s house,” but it was built by her father in 1925 and always referred to by her as her parents’ house. It’s said that even in the decades long after they had passed away she was reluctant to rearrange furniture out of deference to them.
The only thing that distinguishes the Welty house from its neighbors is a small sign near the front sidewalk. Seeing no other directions, I marched right into the house, assuming I’d find some kind of reception area. Instead, I found the house looking exactly as if Miss Welty had just stepped out to the kitchen. Books line the shelves and cover most horizontal surfaces. I also startled a housekeeper. I quickly retreated and discovered a visitor center in the house next door. There I paid my $5 to a genial receptionist and got in line for a tour with three elderly visitors.
Two docents—gracious Southern ladies, both—served as our guides, one to do the talking and the other to walk ahead and behind to make sure the doors to the house were opened only for us and locked tight behind us.
The house is, as I said, locked in amber, curated as it would have been in the mid-1980s. (Miss Welty left the house to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History when she died in 2001. You can see a short video about it here.) The rugs and furnishings date back to the 1920s. They’re not fancy, and are actually worn and threadbare as rugs and furniture that served the Welty family for almost eighty years could be expected to be. The art on the walls is original and by Mississippi artists Miss Welty knew.
The real treat for me was the garden. It was a sultry day when I visited. At the conclusion of the inside tour, the other visitors adjourned to the shade of a side porch. One of the docents was tickled that I was more interested in seeing the garden and led me on an enthusiastic tour of it.
It’s actually quite a traditional Southern residential flower garden, not at all pretentious. What struck me was that its style is very much like the style of my own garden; that is, more organic than formal in its flowing curves, its mixture of open lawn and woodlands and its irregularly shaped garden “rooms.” Even though Jackson is almost a thousand miles southwest of Virginia Beach, I was surprised to find many of the same shrubs and perennial flowers growing in Miss Welty’s garden that you would find in mine.
Most of the plantings in the Welty garden were either original or descended from plants put in place by Miss Welty’s mother in the 1920s. They’re everyday Southern plants: camellias, spider lilies, irises, larkspur, hollyhocks, asters, chrysanthemums, roses, magnolias and so on. But unlike modern hybridized plants that have been bred to make them more hardy and disease-resistant, the flowers in the Welty garden still have their natural scents, most of which I had never smelled before.
The Sweet Smell of Sweet Peas, 2011
I asked my guide if I could stick around for a while and take some pictures in the garden. Once she was assured I wasn’t going to take illicit clippings, she welcomed me to stay as long as I like. She had to leave, though, to go pick up her grandchild for a day at the swimming pool.