Sunday, May 28, 2016
You’ve seen her. I know you have. Somewhere in Ardsley Park. Not on one of those shady streets lined with live oak trees and two-story red brick houses with nary a person in sight. No, most days Chloe Smith stands in front of a modest, blue, one-story clapboard house that used to be covered in vinyl before she braved the naysayers and removed the siding to find wood underneath. This house faces south, all the better to catch the good light, the good sun, because Chloe moved here three years ago from Hollywood, Calif. – via upstate New York, the North Carolina coast, Cincinnati and Chicago – for the interesting architecture and the weather, yes, but mainly for the chance to garden 11 months a year. She was a kitchen-designer in California with art school experience at the Art Institute in Chicago. When she was ready to leave the West coast she sat at her desk and imagined a placed she wanted to be. Then, with Savannah as her answer, she searched online and found her house.
Once here she borrowed upon her experience with spatial relationships and started prepping the front yard. First thing? Remove an old sprawling mulberry tree and a palm tree that was beginning to crack her porch. The second? Plant a fig tree. In California she’d trade her homemade crackers for a friend’s figs. The third? Seek out a Master Gardener class. She wanted to do things right.
You’ve seen her. I know you have. She stands tall. She stands upright. She’s spare. As you drive by she might be standing still, looking down at her creation, her palette. She might be thinking, turning her head, first this way, then the other. She’s not in a hurry. She could be staring out at the vast gardens of Sissinghurst in England where Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson tended their estate. Except Chloe is contemplating what used to be a slightly sloping front lawn but grass is not her style.
She started with a blank canvas. With a few sketches on paper and a lot of experimenting Chloe has put together a smorgasbord of vegetables, perennials, annuals, all snug in eight divided beds, each seven-by-seven-feet, with precise brick paths Chloe, who is 78, laid out herself. But it’s not so neat that some divine Corsican mint isn’t sneaking through, “the best taste ever,” she says, “especially with crème de menthe. Imagine walking on it and releasing the fragrance.”
She’s got thyme borders, lemon verbena, salvia, dill, okra, broccoli, Chinese cabbage (white and red), a tangerine tree, an arbequina olive tree, violas and lavender (“everyone told me it’s hard to grow but it’s about the soil. It needs a sweet soil which it gets from the lime that leaches from above.”) and bags of coffee grounds to combat fire ants.
The canvas-as-a-garden changes depending on how she feels. This year she planted corn. Not because she thought she’d get a big crop. She won’t. She just wanted to see how it grows. Now it stands taller than she does.
“Did you know every strand of silk in every tassel translates to a kernel of corn?”
Well, no. I didn’t.
It’s bizarre and wonderful, she said.
Then there’s the wheat, a beautiful grass nodding playfully in the May day breeze. She grows it for the wheat berries, which she will grind and then bake her own bread. If the plants do well she’ll give over a whole section to them next year.
“As a young girl I would visit my grandfather in Nebraska and we’d go out to the field where he gave me a few berries and said, ‘Taste this,’” she said. “They were chewy and had the sweetest, most wonderful taste.”
Her grandparents and great-grandparents were homestead farmers from North Carolina.
As a child of four or five in Tulsa, Chloe weeded for an elderly neighbor. The woman wanted to give her hard candy; Chloe wanted cash so she could buy some Roy Roger records and comic books.
Not everything she grows is for herself. When her mail carrier said his wife loves artichokes she cropped a few globes, which are a variety of thistle, and handed them over. Chloe, a good cook, likes to make raw artichoke salad.
Fennel and parsley are for the eastern swallow butterflies, cinnamon basil for the bees. One neighbor gets jalapenos. Another may come home to find a bouquet of zinnias on her porch. A three-year-old who lives nearby likes to come over to pick flowers for her mother. When Chloe overdid collards, she brought the excess to Second Harvest. Though not intended, birds have been snatching the blackberries planted near her house. The “heavenly smelling” potted Mr. Lincoln rose, which sits on her porch, is for her.
“It’s the strangest thing,” she said. “People think what I do is work. But it’s not work. It’s magic.”