Where Beauty Blooms
A visit with two of Wilmington’s finest gardeners
I must say I’ve been mopping my allegedly ponderous brow with great frequency so far this sultry summer here in this coastal town named for me. In one day I’ve sweated more than during my entire 12 years as one of the first speakers of the House of Commons in Britain’s young Parliament in the early 1700s.
There I presented myself as a cool, quiet and unruffled (except for my blouses) beacon of noble gentility, which my sweaty and gibbering contemporaries somehow interpreted as dullness. A clod and a fop, these gassy donkeys called me behind my well-tailored back. But they never saw me sweat. Particularly not like this. Great rivulets that would have ruined my favorite white face powder and vermilion rouge, common among elegant aristocrats of my time. (None wore it better than I, Lord Wilmington.)
But now, as my daily outings in this watery wonderland bronzes my flesh for the first time, I welcome the perspicuity that accompanies perspiration. I can now see clearly the beauty of this delicate slice of the coast, and of those salty souls who know and love it. They, too, are getting to know and trust Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington and confidante of kings (Georges I and II). Thus is how it has been all my life. Because I am hesitant to speak and have a noble (ahem) brow, people tell me things. Their hopes and fears and passions.
Take Aubrey Doggett, for example. He fears a real hurricane this year.
“A once-in-a-hundred-years event, when the water meets the water,” he told me as we stood in his uncanny Wrightsville Beach horticultural masterpiece perched on a narrow sandy spit between the Atlantic Ocean and Banks Channel. He well remembers hurricanes like Bertha and Fran that brought those bodies of water clapping together, all but wiping out his nearly maniacal monument to gardening.
He drank himself into handcuffs over the devastation, he told me and a quartet of vacationing ladies listening to this youthful and excitable 64-year-old beach denizen. “I took it personally,” he recalled. Perhaps you know Aubrey. You certainly should know his landscaping and just how personally he takes it.
For 32 years he has worked for the Blockade Runner resort, which, to my eye, has the best landscaping and gardening in the area. Yes, I’ve been to Airlie and the Arboretum. I’ve now walked and biked nearly every street and alley in town. But in terms of variety, design, expense, tenacity, ingenuity and, yes, sweat, there is nothing like the 4 acres upon which the Blockade Runner sits between those waters.
You may well wonder what a British lord would know about gardening. Let me assure you I am not just a pretty face with a gift for running a divided nation and dozens of its colonies around the world. From my earliest days at our family’s moated Compton Wynates estate, I cultivated a passion for all things botanical, both the agricultural and aesthetic. As I grew into power, I encouraged Colonists to not only grow crops, tobacco and hemp for sails, but to strive for beautification and health through gardening. Many flower societies around the world were germinated thusly. Horticulture is required for healthy culture, as I’ve always said.
I sought out Aubrey Doggett after visiting the resort and finding the unlikely beauty blooming there in the face of salt, sand, blistering sun and northerly winds.
I found a manor-born lad who had to struggle with the winds of the world because of his excitability and short attention span. He’s fond of faded plaid shorts, pastel pullover shirts, high woolen socks, laced hiking boots and snappy elastic supports for his creaky but busy knees. His gnarled fingers look like they could plow rocky soil.
He remembers as a wee moppet, hiding under the family shrubs as they were being pruned, feeling the falling cuttings and the sweat dripping from the landscapers. “I couldn’t wait to do that myself,” he told me as we walked the property. His story unfolded between colorful descriptions of the plants, their origins, nicknames, properties, difficulties and points of interest, such as historical usages as inks or poisons. I found his knowledge, while delivered in jerks and spurts, like a feast.
He blames and credits a thing he calls attention deficit disorder for his energy and compulsions. His first job at the resort — tending bar — ended, he said, when the benevolent and beauty-loving owners (a local brother and sister) discovered his abundant energy would be better served by pulling weeds than the shirt collars of vacationing inebriates. “It saved my soul,” he said of his gardening career at the resort. His annual plant budget is roughly $100,000, he said. Add in his assistants, interns, watering and all the other expenses related to this landscaping challenge, and you’re looking at a $1 million or so yearly operation.
This frigid past winter was unusually brutal for the plants. “Everything was tortured,” he said. It took forever for the ocean to warm out of the 50s and 60s — it had dipped to the mid-40s! — and then it jumped right up into the 80s as unusually warm weather settled down over the area like a Dutch oven. It’s that menacing flip-flop that has him worried about the waters meeting again over his life-affirming garden of Eden.
After soaking up Aubrey’s knowledge and passion, I was reminded of another transformative and compulsive gardener whom I’ve met and grown to admire at N. 4th and Grace Streets. Yes, I know it’s on the “other” side of Market Street.
Allison Green knows it, too. For the 27 years she’s been renting on that block, she’s been trying to make it every bit as pretty, desirable and safe as the gentry side of Market.
When she first moved here from Charleston, West Virginia, in 1991 to sell steel products to Duke Energy, “It was pretty trashy,” she told me during one of our pleasant sidewalk visits. There was only one other resident on the block. Grim local characters and rambunctious visitors could make nightlife dodgy at times.
So she began her beautification, picking up trash, sweeping the street and planting the flowers, trees and shrubs that soothed and suited her soul. Dozens of them. Then hundreds. Now thousands. Her plant budget just this year: $10,000.
It’s a symphony of beauty — an enchanting variety of textures, colors and smells, spilling out of her apartment building’s large yards and filling the long right-of-way between the sidewalk and the street. Look at the ferns on her upper porch! “All my money goes to gardening,” she said. “It’s just me, my cats and my plants.” And it’s also the way she does it. As a dedicated follower of fashion and the proud son of the best-dressed woman in England, I must say the aptly named Allison Green immediately struck my fancy with her gardening garb.
I’ve seen her weeding in a silken slitted kimono. Watering in a short skirt-like thing of her own creation, with ankle-high boots. Every time it’s something unusual, glamorous, even daring. “I’m 53 years old,” she told me with one of her bright smiles colored with a hint of pale lipstick. “I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks of me.” My mother, Mary Nicole, would certainly approve of gardening in heels. “If it’s worth doing,” she liked to say, “it’s worth getting dressed up for.”
And many are those who approve of Allison Green and her dedication. Neighborhood walkers like me stop to soak it in and offer thanks. Local drivers slow or stop to see what’s blooming. “I notice something new almost every day,” said young neighbor Thomas Esenbock. “I’ll never move because of Allison.”
It’s partly why she does it. “I like to think I’ve set the tone for the block,” she told me.
But she also does it for the reasons Aubrey does: It’s in her blood and bones, it keeps her fit and young and grounded, and it is all so very tangible, this difference working with the Earth can make in our fair city.
Your Lord Wilmington will proudly mop his brow to that. — Spencer Compton