The Sisterhood of the Traveling Plants

Isn’t it odd how green thumbs tend to be genetically predisposed in families? My sister and I trace our interest in gardening back to Grandma Starling, whose farmhouse in North Carolina was surrounded by blooming plants. Several of her 10 children – including our father – shared her passion for growing things, as do numerous cousins. Now, a new generation is obsessed with gardening. 

The descendants of what are believed to be some of the earliest double-orange daylily hybrids have made their way from Virginia to my backyard (pictured) in Lancaster, and now to my son’s home in North Carolina.

My grandmother could grow anything, as could her daughter, Ruth, who had fabulous gardens at her home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Aunt Ruth, who lived to be 100 and worked as a floral designer nearly all her life, was lauded in her obituary for being the first person to successfully raise pansies in that area of North Carolina and, as a result, became known as “the pansy lady.” (Maybe that’s why my sister and I love pansies.) It was also noted that she liked nothing more than to share plants and vegetables from her gardens with others. 

Our father, Charles Starling, brought his love of gardening to Pennsylvania. I will always remember his frustration at not being able to grow crape myrtles. Every year he’d arrive home from a visit to North Carolina with a new specimen and, no matter where he planted it and how much protection he provided, the winter weather would do it in. When the winter-friendly hybrids came on the market, he filled the yard with them. He also loved petunias and marigolds and grouped them in the craziest color combinations that somehow looked like they belonged together. To this day, I follow suit in an area of my garden. 

After being sold numerous times and even relocated once, my cousin, Deb, bought our grandmother’s farmhouse and had it moved back to what had been the family farm. Just as our grandmother had done, Deb has surrounded it with roses and other plants. Deb’s mother (my Aunt Gerry), who was born in the house, lives next door.

Always a farmer at heart, he reengaged with growing vegetables in the ’60s by renting a garden plot in an area off the Dillerville Road that Armstrong made available to employees. He later turned a portion of the backyard into an expansive vegetable garden. He added to that by gardening on a building lot he had purchased nearby. He loved to grow tomatoes. He and I were the only members of our family who ate them, so by late August, we were eating them for breakfast, lunch and dinner and giving them away to everyone we knew! He also grew Southern things like okra and sweet potatoes and gladly shared them with other “transplants.” 

Many a summer afternoon was spent husking corn, shelling lima beans and snapping green beans, but we were rewarded in the dead of winter with all sorts of goodies that filled a large chest freezer. 

When my sister and I became homeowners, we also became avid gardeners. Her house in Richmond, Virginia, had a huge backyard whose landscaping needed a refresh, so that first spring and summer, Ginny and her husband, John, devoted their time to that project. They also brought the third-floor orchid conservatory back to life and transformed it into a sewing room. 

Through digging in the far reaches of the backyard, they unearthed a cache of green marble. Curious, they asked long-tenured neighbors about the original owners and learned that they were avid horticulturists who owned drug stores in the area. The marble was no doubt the remnants of a soda fountain remodel. Ginny and John had the marble cut and polished and used it to frame a koi pond. It was gorgeous! As for the plants, shrubs and trees that filled the property, one neighbor mentioned that the homeowners were often privy to obtaining rare plants and the latest hybrids. Such was the case with the double-orange daylilies that emerged during their first summer at the house. 

Charlie is becoming quite the rose whisperer.

It just so happened that I had bought a new house in Lancaster and during a trip to Richmond, I acted on my sister’s invitation to dig up some daylilies to enliven my fledgling gardens. What accounted for maybe a dozen plants has grown into hundreds. My once sad-looking gardens have grown into themed plots that surround my townhouse (fortunately, I have an end unit). One plot has a Southwestern theme (and pays homage to the trips we’ve taken to the Western U.S.). Two areas have Southern themes (crape myrtles, roses, daylilies, a bottle tree and a birdbath that belonged to John’s parents, who lived on Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue). The courtyard is devoted to hosta and other shade lovers. The back gardens have a beach theme.

Thirty years later, I wonder, “What was I thinking!” Growing and maintaining those gardens were huge chores in the beginning. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed every moment. Sometimes I’ll go out to do some deadheading and before I know it, three hours have passed. My son, Charlie, showed absolutely no interest, so it was basically a one-woman show. I viewed gardening as a choice I had made and was not compelled to force chores like weeding on him. 

Fast forward 30 years and Charlie is now a homeowner who has caught the gardening bug. He says he finds it relaxing to putter around in the garden. It’s not unusual to receive a phone call or text from him with garden-related questions. When you enter his favorite gardening center, Green Side Up, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, it’s reminiscent of Cheers, as the employees always greet him by name. He’s become quite the rose whisperer and is obsessed with making palms – he loves South Carolina in general and Charleston in particular – grow and survive. He and his wife, Jen, are also into houseplants. 

He’s also cultivating new gardens and needs plants. So, every time I travel to North Carolina, I fill the car with daylilies I dig out of my gardens. The descendants of the daylilies that grew at my sister’s house have made their way from Virginia to Pennsylvania and now to North Carolina. 

Last July, I also gifted Charlie with DIY garden art. Bowling balls embellished with glass “gems” kept showing up on my Facebook feed. I had two of my dad’s bowling balls, so I decided to give it a try. After doing a test run, I made one for Charlie that is decorated with turquoise glass and seashells (he’s into the coastal look). It’s special because the two often went bowling together. 

A DIY garden-art gift for Charlie that entailed his grandfather’s bowling ball and coastal colors.

Talk about coming full circle: Two summers ago, when I was in North Carolina, Charlie took me to see my Aunt Gerry, who I had not seen in many years. Incredibly, her daughter, Deb, now lives in my grandmother’s farmhouse, which had passed through a succession of owners and had even been moved over the course of the past 60 years. The last time it was for sale, Deb bought it and moved it back to where it belonged – the land the Starling family once farmed in Autryville. Deb has surrounded it with gorgeous rose bushes and other plants. No doubt, our grandmother would be proud. Life certainly moves in mysterious ways! 

– Suzanne Starling-Long

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