JIM DODSON: Spending an Afternoon With the Queen of Dirt
This column first appeared in The Pilot in April 2006.
Since moving to Southern Pines a year ago, I've been a frequent visitor to the grounds of James Boyd's Weymouth estate and a growing admirer of the formal gardens found there.
I sometimes go there to poke around on early-morning walks, and I often wind up there on my evening strolls. For what it's worth, my dog Riley really likes the place, too. The garden lies just a few blocks from our cottage, and we're both always on our best behavior when we venture there. Well, at least he is. Good thing he keeps me at the other end of his leash.
A hike through a garden anywhere in the world, I find, is an excellent cure for whatever is ailing you, a sure pick-me-up for a weary spirit.
Last week, home from a book tour and my teaching duties in Virginia, weary from too much traveling and the current state of the world -- Rummy's general PR problem, the Duke lacrosse circus, Iranian uranium -- I brazenly called up Charlotte Gantz and asked if she would agree to meet me at Weymouth and tell me a little bit about the place that brings out the best in my dog.
My latest book, after all, is an aspiring gardener's tale about traipsing through some of the finest private and public gardens on the planet in the company of the delightful characters who created them. Yet ironically, the fine botanic retreat in my own backyard remained basically a mystery.
I knew from my friend Marshall Berg that Mrs. Gantz played a pivotal role in restoring Weymouth gardens, and maybe even helped save it from oblivion. I knew from another source in the neighborhood that she was in her late 90s and one reason so many folks will queue up this week for the popular Annual Weymouth Garden Sale. She is affectionately called Gantz "the Queen of Dirt Gardeners."
The first thing we got sorted out was her name.
"You must call me Charlotte," she said with a charming laugh, "same as the truck drivers and all the children who come here do. To them, I'm just plain old Charlotte."
I agreed but failed to detect anything plain about this 4 1/2-foot garden diva behind her oversized eyeglasses. My confidential sources inside the garden informed me she'd enjoyed several different lives, a success in each.
"Maybe we can also talk about your life," I proposed, thinking how the human story behind a garden's revival is invariably as interesting as the garden itself -- sometimes more so because every garden at heart simply reflects the vision of the people who created it.
"Maybe later," Miss Charlotte replied with a modest shrug. "Truthfully, my life has been wonderful but a little crazy. For example, I have no formal training as a gardener. Not even a master gardener's certificate. Does that surprise you? It's true. All I do is jump in and get involved. I don't do anything proper. Never have, never will. I garden by pure instinct and things I've learned from others. I took over the long beds in back, for example, without a soul's authorization."
The Queen was my kind of gardener, a grassroots revolutionary.
"The important thing," she said, pointing toward the last of the blooming camellias, indicating where I should aim our garden golf cart on a warm Easter Monday afternoon, "is the story of how this garden came back to life. Most public gardens are created with government funding and a paid staff of some kind. This one, however, was brought entirely back to life and transformed into the glorious thing you see around us purely by volunteer help and community labor."
'Give, Give, Give'
Over the next half hour, the Queen of Dirt told me the tale of how six "tireless" volunteers took on the task of saving the neglected gardens after the Friends of Weymouth took possession of the estate back in 1979.
"The place was a jungle, a mess, nothing like you see today," she said. "What funds there were went directly into fixing up the house. The gardens would likely have been lost if Tom and Helen Greene and Buffy Ives hadn't jumped in to clear the growth that had taken over and begun new plantings. Tom did most of the clearing himself, while Buffy and Helen scoured the area for interesting plants.
"Most of them came from local gardeners, I'm happy to say -- a true volunteer effort. A man named Charles Passapae joined us to work on the long beds and help move shrubs, and Tom then found Hank Kiefaber to cut the lawns."
Charlotte's first responsibility on the property was the herb garden.
"In the early days, we brought our own tools and plants from our own gardens," she said. When four of her five colleagues either died or moved away, she found herself doing much of the weeding and planting on her own. "Fortunately, Hank found a volunteer named Sara Tarrant, and word spread that we needed help. We just said, 'Give, give, give' -- and people did."
Sara Tarrant, she says, came up with the idea of selling extra daylilies and irises from the Weymouth garden in the Benefit Shop by the old estate swimming pool -- which would eventually morph into a delightful reflecting pond presently teeming with aquatic plants and a Hallelujah Chorus of happy frogs.
"We made a hundred dollars from the sale and thought that was all the money in the world," Gantz said. "So we did it again the next year. Little by little, we began to get somewhere."
By the end of the 1980s, Weymouth's amazing all-volunteer gardening staff numbered about 50, and the estate had its first professionally trained grounds director, Francis de Voss, the former head of the Minnesota State Arboretum. It was De Voss, Gantz says, who undertook the yeoman task of removing the garden's infamous but ailing boxwood maze and moving the better surviving specimens to the back of the great lawn, opening the garden to a new world of planting possibilities.
After ill health forced De Voss to give up Weymouth, a Pinehurst volunteer named Dick Banks took on the task of propagating and planting new shrubs and flowers for spring and fall plantings, Bill Shore eventually took over the roses, and Gantz continued overseeing bulbs and bedding plants.
When Marshall Berg began as director of grounds in the early 1990s, she says, he urged her to start a regular newsletter that updated Moore County's various gardening organizations on the garden's needs.
"That really helped give us the financial boost we needed to make improvements," she remembers. "It also brought us a lot of new wonderful volunteers to work in the garden."
'I'm Getting On a Bit'
By this point in Weymouth's comeback tale, Gantz was officially called director of dirt gardeners -- or unofficially the "Queen of Dirt," as my admiring neighbor likes to refer to this irresistible force of nature.
The title came from shepherding volunteers who liked to get their hands in the dirt planting things. An annual Dirt Gardeners' Workshop was begun in 1998 and continues to this day, attracting new volunteers every March.
"Until this spring," Charlotte told me with a wistful little sigh as we sat admiring a newly sodded Great Lawn and spectacular formations of irises she'd planted along the margins of the garden's former cold frame beds, "I was still weeding in the garden beds almost every day. There is always something to do, you know. A garden is never finished. I love getting my hands in the dirt, but it's finally too difficult for me to walk around the property."
She looked at me and squinted. "I suppose I'm finally getting on a bit."
I asked the Queen of Dirt, politely as possible, exactly how far she'd gotten along in life.
"I'll be 97 in July."
Friends with Hepburn
A pair of cardinals flew past us. We sat in the shade beneath a holly tree for a while, talking about how the Sandhills desperately needed rain. She told me how she and her husband Robert retired to the Sandhills in 1978 so he could play golf and she could pursue her interests in gardening and insects. When she was a girl growing up outside Pittsburgh, she explained, her grandfather, Edward Morris, the head of Yale University's Latin Department, got her hooked on his hobby of paleontology, the joy of identifying fossils.
Shortly before moving here two decades ago, Gantz donated an extensive collection to Appalachian State University in Boone. Today, it is the mythic heart of that school's geography program. I asked where her gardening bug had come from.
"My grandmother had the finest garden in Old Saybrook, Connecticut," she said. "People would come from all over to look at it. I learned from just being in the middle of things there, watching what she did, picking up things. That's what I tell young people to do with their lives -- just jump in and get involved, never stop."
"Did you really know Katharine Hepburn?" I asked. I'd heard this in the neighborhood, too.
"We were in school together at Bryn Mawr," she said. "Kate was a couple of years ahead of me, and our mothers knew each other. We weren't close friends, but we both had a keen interest in acting, and some people thought we looked and sounded like each other. After college, we used to meet at the casting office and swap notes."
Gantz made it to the cast of a Broadway play that soon closed because of the stock market crash. Another time, she was cast as a small-town prostitute in a play with Joseph Cotten that was optioned by Hollywood.
"They wanted me to play the role on film," she said, "but then decided I looked and sounded too much like Kate Hepburn, if you can believe it."
The film never got made.
Authored Four Books
So she went back to Columbia and earned her law degree, finishing near the top of her class. After the war, after working for a time as a corporate counsel in Manhattan, she and her husband wound up on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, where Gantz gave birth to identical twin boys, Timothy and Jeffrey, and revived her interest in the natural world.
Eventually, four nature books and a juvenile novel came out of her love of nature. Timothy grew up to become a popular professor of classics at the University of Georgia. Jeffrey today is arts editor of The Boston Phoenix newspaper and also an author.
"What a lovely life you have had," I said, just as the sky darkened and the rumble of thunder broke the warm afternoon stillness. "This garden is so lucky to have had your magic touch."
"Thank you," replied the Queen of Dirt. "But it's really no secret. The magic in any life simply comes from just doing."
Speaking of magic, the first rain in weeks suddenly came, softly thumping our golf cart. Two gardeners smiled simultaneously. There's no happiness like the end of a drought.
"Will you be at the plant sale?" I asked -- uncertain if such a crazy affair might be beyond a queen approaching her hundredth birthday.
"Of course I'll be there," she replied. "I have to price the plants and say hello to people."
Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence at The Pilot, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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