Cover Story: Beautiful Bellingrath gardens

It was a classic case of spousal interference. In 1917, Mobile, Alabama, tycoon Walter Bellingrath was told by his doctor that he was a workaholic. This was not entirely surprising news: In 1903, Bellingrath had purchased one of the first Coca-Cola bottling franchises in the nation and grown it from a one-man operation into a wildly successful business. But now, with a World War overseas and an influenza epidemic raging at home, Bellingrath’s physician ordered him to spend some time in the country and “learn how to play.”

So Bellingrath purchased a 1,000-acre spread of wilderness south of Mobile on the Fowl River, which he named “Belle Camp.” The new property boasted two dilapidated cabins and lacked electricity and running water. It didn’t matter. Just a couple miles above Mobile Bay, Belle Camp was the perfect hunting and fishing retreat and Bellingrath loved it.

If Walter was content with the new fish camp, his wife Bessie was not. A long-time amateur gardener, Bessie realized she was running out of room at the couple’s Mobile home for the camellia and azalea plantings she loved so much. It wasn’t long before she realized several tracts of open acreage at the fish camp were the perfect place to expand on her passion.

Walter didn’t object to his wife’s plans, and over time, the fish camp took on a decidedly more genteel look. A trip overseas in 1927 introduced the couple to the concept of English gardens as well as European landscaping trends. Upon their return, the newly inspired Bellingraths decided to transform Belle Camp into an American version of the gardens they’d toured in Europe.

There was no such thing as a landscape architect at the time. So the couple decided to hire Mobile city architect George Rogers to formally lay out a garden design for them. It proved to be an inspired choice: Rogers added water features, fountains, rock formations and meandering paved walkways throughout the property, creating a serene environment punctuated with colorful magnolia, camellia and azalea backdrops. As work progressed, Rogers and the Bellingraths continually expanded their original vision into an integrated design with complementary garden settings. Word of the gardens spread.

In 1932, at a meeting of the National Garden Club in Mobile, the Bellingraths announced they would open Belle Camp to the public for one day – Sunday, April 7 – the height of azalea season. They were stunned when more than 4,000 visitors jammed the roads to the fish camp. The Mobile police were called in to direct traffic, and the Bellingraths realized they needed to answer the overwhelming response to their invitation by opening their private gardens to the public. Two years later Bellingrath Gardens opened year round.

An enduring memorial to a passionate gardener
Standing in shady Live Oak Plaza on the Bellingrath grounds on a hot June morning, it’s easy to see that George Rogers and the Bellingraths were far ahead of their time when it came to modern concepts such as recycling and green use of resources.

The ancient paving stones that grace the plaza in front of the Bellingrath home evoke the gardens of old Europe. The stones themselves once lined the streets of downtown Mobile. Before that, they’d traveled across the Atlantic Ocean as ballast on sailing ships hauling cotton from the Deep South to the textile mills of Manchester, England. When Mobile decided to modernize its commercial district with asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks, Bellingrath cut a deal with the city: He would finance the installation of the new roads and walkways in return for the old paving stones which now give his gardens a distinctly European feel. Iron fences and gates accenting the garden paths were granted a second life as well: Many once graced 19th-century hotels in the port city before being acquired by the Bellingraths and added to the grounds.

Rogers was forward-thinking in other ways as well: The gardens are irrigated by aquifers and cisterns and were graded to maximize the effect of rainfall. Furthermore, Bellingrath Gardens today is almost completely self-sustaining – from its irrigation sources to the extensive nursery operation that provides gardening staff supervisor and display coordinator Barbara Smith with the planting materials she needs to keep the gardens fresh and exciting year round.

“Overall, we have 900 acres here, with about 65 acres planted and open to the public,” Smith notes. “The garden is controlled by a board of directors that oversees the business side of things, but for the most part I have free reign. My limitations are knowing what will work here and ensuring Walter Bellingrath’s vision of the gardens as a memorial to his wife remain constant.”

Today, Bellingrath is divided into seven distinct gardens. Overall, the gardens remain true to the Bellingraths’ original vision, although there are modern interpretations with a butterfly garden and a bayou walkway showcasing a pristine Gulf Coast tidewater basin complementing more traditional vistas such as the Rose Garden, Great Lawn and an Asian-American garden packed with plants and décor reminiscent of the Far East. Other highlights include The Grotto on the shore of the river, and the newly re-opened rockery, which has been refurbished and enhanced following damage inflicted on it by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Each of the seven areas has a stationary gardener supervised by Smith. “Every gardener is responsible for maintaining the plantings and installing some of the smaller plantings (although we also have a planting crew),” she notes. “We practice integrated weed management, and control involves chemicals and mechanical processes,” Smith adds. “Weeds are pulled on a daily basis. Every gardener does it and even the executive director has been known to get down and pull weeds when necessary.”

Staying ahead of the curve
John Guy is manager of lawns and irrigation for the gardens. His three-man mowing crew uses a 72-inch Scag ride-on and 36-inch walk-behind mowers to continually groom Bellingrath’s eight acres of turf. “We’re on a rotating schedule,” Guy explains. “At the height of summer, each lawn tract is mowed twice a week.”

The garden is also in the process of upgrading the rather antiquated irrigation system installed in the 1920s. “Irrigation is always vital, but down here in the summer, we routinely endure 90-degree-plus days with 90-percent humidity,” Smith notes. “There are areas of the garden that absolutely must be watered twice a day this time of year to maintain their health and color.”

Also behind the scenes is Chuck Owens, nursery and maintenance manager for the Gardens. His crews manage everything from the seven greenhouses on the property to year-round maintenance on the Garden’s elaborate Christmas displays. “Every Christmas light bulb is changed yearly – and that’s mainly because the sun fades their color,” he explains. “It’s very labor intensive. We’re slowly making the move to LEDs – they’ll last 200,000 hours or more – so the electric cords will fall apart before the bulbs will fail. But it’s a slow process because they’re so new and still limited in the colors – the turquoise, magenta and lavender we need to really make our Christmas displays pop.”

Working months in advance is the norm for Owens. “We start cultivating and growing summer plantings in October,” he notes. “In January, I’m starting to work on fall plants. Right now, we’re getting our cascading mums ready to put in racks in preparation for a November showing. We grow almost 100 percent of all the plants that are displayed on the grounds, with a few rare plant type exceptions. So it’s an intense operation all year.”

“We’re all – and I mean all of us here – about the ‘pretty picture,'” Smith adds. “We want to wow our visitors every time they walk through the gardens. We’ve remained true to the Bellingraths’ vision, and that will never change.”

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