As you know, I was born a gardener and longed to be a horticulturist.  I also yearned for garden books and a greenhouse.  There were no true gardeners in my family growing up, so I had to look elsewhere.  I was enamored with James Underwood Crockett’s Victory Garden on PBS and lusted for every garden and greenhouse passed, with nose pressed against the car window.  I couldn’t wait for my Park’s Seed catalog to arrive each year.  Before I married, I even had two pictures over my fireplace mantel that I painted in my Jr. High art class from a photo in the Park’s catalog.

I declared I was going to be a professional horticulturist in a ninth-grade career report, the same year I got my own 8 x 12 fiberglass greenhouse, purchased from J&J Nursery in Longview, paid in half with my lawn mowing proceeds and half by my parents.

Then, thanks to my mom, my first two gardening books rolled in, Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (I was a little hippy after all) and Crockett’s Indoor Garden.  My Aunt Charlsey and Uncle Ronnie took me to my first botanical garden, Hodges Gardens in Many, Louisiana. I had still yet to meet a real horticulturist, however, and wrote Horace McQueen on the local Farm and Ranch Show out of Tyler asking where I could find one!

Thankfully, a real gardener with a real garden was right in front of my eyes.  Though nobody in my immediate family gardened, my mom’s best friend Mary Beth Hagood certainly did.  What a blessing and inspiration she was.  She grew African violets.  She grew maiden hair and staghorn ferns.  She grew strawberries.  And she had gardening books!   These were all firsts for me.  Mary Beth also had the first Lady Banks rose, sweet olive, and butterfly gingers I had ever seen.  My people dug things out of the woods.  She shopped at real nurseries!

Mary Beth Hagood was born in Nacogdoches but grew up in Livingston where they moved when she was about six months old.  She said, “I was a Big Thicket gal who used to watch loaded log trucks drag one to two huge pines at a time down Main Street.”  It’s no wonder she loved trees so much.  She said she has loved plants for as long as she could remember; their smells, their beauty, and everything about them.

After marrying Jim Hagood and starting graduate school at Stephen F. Austin State University, the happy couple made a “honeymoon” trip to Florida to visit Jim’s brother and family.  Along the way, they stopped at the famed Bellingrath Gardens in Alabama where Mary Beth fell totally in love with the plants and the design.  “That garden made a huge impression on me,” she says.  I can still see it in her garden today.  During college when she was exhausted from studying at the library and desperately needed a break, she’d search for books on flowers, primarily camellias, to give her something fun to concentrate on.

It was at my mom’s and Jim’s SFA graduation when she first met my mother.  Jim told Mary Beth, “I have someone very special that I want you to meet.”  And that was it.  Best friends forever.  My dad and Jim where both band directors (Jim first my dad’s assistant at White Oak, then my dad later selling band instruments) so the two families have been connected by careers and friendship ever since.

Mary Beth has had a number of gardens, starting when she planted flowers in her rental house flower beds in Troup (Smith County), my birthplace.  She admits that each garden was a lesson in learning.

At her first house in Houston, she said they had little excess money, so she moved plants around, learning where they looked best. Jim would come home from band practice and ask, “What have you moved today?”  That was the home where I remember the Lady Banks rose, the African violets, the maidenhair fern, and the strawberries.  My gardening brain was a sponge then.  Whether she knew it or not, I was growing right along with her.

Her next Houston garden (Kingwood) had unbelievably rich San Jacinto River bottomland soil where according to her, “Everything I planted grew.”  This garden featured camellias, magnolias, dogwoods, and azaleas, all on a slope.

They eventually ended up in her birthplace where Jim was the high school band director at Nacogdoches for many years and Mary Beth a high school English teacher.  Although Jim was from Austin, he, too, fell in love with the East Texas landscape.

Her current garden in Nacogdoches is a bit of a botanical garden featuring pass-a-long plants she brought with her, interesting finds from nurseries and catalogs, and a plethora of things I’ve gifted her over the years knowing that she’d give them a good home or trial them for me.  Mary Beth preferred the natural look with curves and surprises.  I’d say her garden leans towards the English naturalistic style.  Mary Beth said she liked the artistic quality of landscaping and the beauty that colors—even shades of green—can provide.  She added with contentment, “Sometimes, I just love to sit out among the plants and enjoy all that is around me, including the wildlife.  The garden here has profited from the little I have learned and had time to grow and space to do it.”

When I asked my dear friend Mary Beth what pleasures she derived from gardening, she wouldn’t hush!  With the love and passion of a gardener, artist, and English teacher she extolled:

“I cannot determine what I like best about gardening—I love planting—digging in the soil; I like the smell of good soil; I like creating venues; I like the plants that perform even better than I could have ever imagined!  I like it all but the sweat and exhaustion!  Gardening has become my stress relief for problems, etc.; my therapy—I can go out to work in the yard and not realize that several hours have passed.  When I can get out among the plants and the garden, I feel my spirit begin to lift. I just love the look and plants of the old Southern gardens, introduced primarily by Bellingrath Gardens so many years ago and reinforced by annual visits to Bayou Bend during the years we lived in the Houston area.  I love touring gardens and loved to go to Mercer Arboretum when we lived in Houston, not far from the arboretum.  Today, SFA’s beautiful gardens offer an enjoyable reprieve from the bustle of life right off University Street.  It has to be Nacogdoches’ outstanding attribute.  I love the trips to gardens of the South with you and Jackie.  I could go on and on about the pleasures!!!”

We both could.  Thank you, Mary Beth, for adding so much to my life.  It wouldn’t have been the same without you.  You were the special one.

-Greg

Written by Greg Grant Greg Grant is an award-winning horticulturist, conservationist, photographer, and writer from Arcadia, Texas. Each month he writes an article for The Arbor Gate Blog where he is given free range to write about any topic that interests him. During the week, he is the Smith County horticulturist in Tyler for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and on the weekends, he and his wife tend Greg’s grandparents’ old farmhouse, his Rebel Eloy Emanis Pine Savanna and Bird Sanctuary, a flock of laying hens, one Jack Russell, and three cats.