This time of year, when the snowdrops bloom, I always think of Bill Owens. Bill was a remarkable man: born in 1905 in the tiny community of Pin Hook, Texas, he was raised in poverty by his widowed mother. His teaching at a one-room schoolhouse was all from one book, the only schoolbook his family possessed. He learned every subject out of that volume and went on to finance his further education by hard labor such as picking cotton. Yet Bill eventually ended up a dean at Columbia University where he headed a writing program. When I met Bill I was an aspiring writer; he agreed to give me personal lessons, if in return I would transplant the overgrown rhododendrons that were blocking the view from his windows.
Bill became a close personal friend as well as a mentor. After his funeral in 1990, his son offered me the wonderful gift of two clumps of snowdrops from Bill’s yard. I moved them “in the green,” while they were actively growing, just after they flowered. This is traditional practice with snowdrops, and though some horticulturists criticize it, saying it would be better to wait until the snowdrops go dormant, moving them in the green has worked brilliantly for me. Indeed, when those two initial clumps expanded, my wife Suzanne lifted and divided them, while in the green and then replanted them around the garden. Bill’s legacy is blooming all over my yard, now.
It is legacies such as this that make a garden special for me. Plants with a history, planted according to traditional craft. Such plantings root me into the landscape like no others. I try to be generous with my plants, hoping that in my small way I can pass along the favor.