Gardening is magical, says Chloe Smith

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.”

We need a train to Tybee

Savannah Morning News

May 22, 2016

When are we going to get a train to Tybee?

If I heard it once last weekend I heard it four times: “Sorry,” the text began. “We’re going to be late. Start without us. We got caught in traffic coming home from the beach.”

And this was an ordinary, albeit gorgeous May day. No emergency hurricane evacuation to buck. No horrific accident to pull over for. No beach bum parade (that’s this weekend). No July 4th fireworks. No out-of-school vacationers from Atlanta, Myrtle Beach or Kansas City. No 95-degree days about to drive people mad if they don’t get into some water and soon.

We have a gorgeous beach some 15 miles from our homes swimmable much of the year and we can’t get to it. We have a beach with piping plovers, oyster rake and purple sandpiper. At the moment it’s the location for a half dozen movie crews. Hollywood knows a good thing when it sees it. But so do we. That’s why we go there. If we can face the traffic. Once there we can join the madding crowd, sit with the masses and see and be seen. Many people do. Or we can also walk to the north end and see far fewer people. That’s good too. OK, so if we want to take our dog (a non-no on Tybee), conduct a rendezvous in private (it happens) or put our eyes on another part of the Atlantic Ocean (or other people), there’s always the beach on Hilton Head Island. Not so bad. Not so far.

But if it’s sand and sea and birds and waves you want, down home and close to friends, we’ve got Tybee.

Except for the traffic. Except for the weekend. Except for summer.

What would Henry Levy have done?

As far as I know, Levy, an irreverent, nonconforming, iconoclastic Tybee-lover and Tybee-resident, who died a few weeks ago, never put his steel-trap mind or his considerable influence to the problem. If he did we might have a train. Right now. He would have come up with something. Maybe a bond referendum. That’s how he got folks to build a bridge connecting Skidaway Island to the mainland. Maybe sheer persistence, the quality he used to spearhead the Truman Parkway. Full-disclosure here: I pooh-poohed the Truman. I saw it as open space, destroyed. I thought it was a big ta-do to get people from Skidaway Island into town. I thought it was stupid and so I called it “the highway to nowhere,” an opinion Levy deemed ill-informed and half-witted, an opinion he never failed to throw back at me at every opportunity.

He was probably right. That was back when Savannah was an undiscovered, unpretentious, sleepy little burg. We were the anti-Charleston. How many people know Tybee used to remove parking meters for the winter? Or that so many streets in the historic district did not have meters? What a concept. That was when ordinary people could afford to live downtown, as renters or home-owners, when parking wasn’t such a big deal, when SCAD hadn’t taken over most of the beautiful properties, when people from Atlanta didn’t buy properties in the historic district, only to use them every sixth weekend, when downtown wasn’t so white, wasn’t so rich.

When we had a train that went to Tybee. No doubt, it was a rumbling, bumbling coach that navigated so slowly you could probably open the windows and touch cabbage palms and yaupon holly or smell the saltwater marsh. You could see slithering alligators, pelicans coming in for a landing, dancing dolphins and lumbering turtles. They didn’t need a sign back then to caution motorists to look out for turtles crossing the road. Rich and poor would ride the train, some drinking, some not. No one had to worry about crashing their vehicle into someone else.

But in 1925 our burgeoning love affair with cars started its crescendo and it hasn’t slowed down yet. So we built a road and railway travel hit the skids. The train became unprofitable (the all-important measure). By 1933 the railroad was kaput. Good-bye train to Tybee. Hello traffic. Hello accidents. Hello road rage.

Yes, we have the six-mile McQueen’s Island Trail or the Old Tybee Railroad Scenic Trail along the erstwhile Savannah & Atlantic railroad line. Yes, we have our big old fancy cars with fine sound systems, every app in the world and a billion screens for children (and drivers).  Except we can’t get to the beach. Too much traffic.

Maybe Henry Levy, may he rest in peace, didn’t want more people to go to his beloved beach.

But I digress: When are we going to get a train to Tybee?