At 45’ by 125’, it is a small garden. But it sticks with me more than any of the grander, Gold Coast estates that I regularly visited during my time on Long Island. Anne Spencer’s garden in Lynchburg, Virginia is a quiet treasure. Very loved, and now maintained by volunteers, it is pure magic.
Anne Spencer was a Harlem Renaissance poet, a mother, a civil rights activist and a gardener who lived from 1882 to 1975. She gardened for 70 of those years. Anne was also African-American, living in a time of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation, and her garden gave her a safe place to be and create and think. Because Lynchburg didn’t have lodging options for African-Americans during much of her adult life, Anne’s home and garden provided a lush, salon-type rest stop for guests such as George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, W. E. B. DuBois and Thurgood Marshall.
Her life as a gardener was complete and constant. She would make daytrips with her husband to find a particular plant. She would, very often, garden at night by lantern or candles. The window of her writing studio, Edankraal, overlooked the length of the garden through stained glass windows. Her writings reflected this deep, unwavering relationship with the natural world. Many of her poems and ideas were written on seed catalogs or seed packets.
After her death in 1975, the historic garden was rediscovered and restored by the Hillside Garden Club – starting in 1983. The final projects of the restoration were completed in April of 2011. Lucky us - to be able to visit, stroll and sit in such a space. I’m not sure where to start in mentioning what I love about the garden. There are the robin’s egg blue pergolas and the rose collection. There is also the pond with the fountainhead that was a gift from W.E.B. DuBois – and the formal hedges of boxwoods. There is also the sweet centerpiece, Edankraal.
For the plant nerds (me! me!) there is much to take in. During the restoration, great pains were taken to keep as many of the original plants as possible. So you can see what are called Anne Spencer Originals – such as a double-flowered deutzia, a ‘Nikko Blue’ hydrangea, boxwoods, and all of the roses (of which there are 11 varieties).
I know I am not alone in my deep admiration. Two books have been written about her garden – the first, Half My World, was written by landscape designer Rebecca Frischkorn and University of Virginia landscape architecture professor Reuben Rainey. And more recently, a book was published detailing the restoration of the garden by Jane Baber White – Lessons Learned from a Poet’s Garden. How I wish I lived closer – to perhaps volunteer and work in the garden. To be a part of maintaining it and seeing it every season must be heaven. But for now, I have had my nose deep in these books – and plan to make another pilgrimage to the garden this April.