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‘A Garden in Conversation’: A Remarkable Film About the Southern Woodland Garden of Louise Agee Wrinkle


‘A Garden in Conversation’: A Remarkable Film About the Southern Woodland Garden of Louise Agee Wrinkle

July 2, 2024

“I think time is the fourth dimension,” says Louise Agee Wrinkle, in the kind of Southern accent you’d hope to find in Alabama but so rarely do. She continues in a way that is dramatically unhurried: “Time, and change, and the garden, all tied together. Every time you deal with plants, you’re dealing with change.” In a remarkable half hour film presented by The Garden Conservancy (A Garden in Conversation: Louise Agee Wrinkle’s Southern Woodland Sanctuary), we are pulled into Louise Wrinkle’s world, the one she grew up in, and the same garden that she called “the jungle” as a child. On returning to the garden and the town of Mountain Brook 40 years ago, she was not tempted to give it a more formal and conventional look. Her approach, summed up in the title of the new edition of her book, Listen to the Land, is more responsive: “I’d rather stand back and look at the landscape, and let the landscape speak to me.” Let’s go for an amble.

Photography courtesy of The Garden Conservancy.

Above: What it looks like when nature guides the design.

The region around Birmingham, Alabama, is mountainous and essentially wooded, with an enviable abundance of native flora. Mrs Wrinkle’s decision to gently guide the woodland rather than aggressively cultivate was logical, especially when described in her own no-nonsense voice: “The design is what nature gave me to work with,” she says, noting that there would be little point in pursuing an English, French or Japanese-style garden. “They are an imposed pattern on the landscape.”

Above: Louise Agee Wrinkle. “Every garden is an autobiography, whether they’re prim and proper, or wild and woollier.”

In forging her own path as a gardener, Louise Wrinkle has had a great influence in her region, and was a founding member of The Garden Conservancy, while taking an active involvement in the Garden Club of America. Now in her tenth decade (having published her book in her ninth), gardens all around Mountain Brook have held on to a strong sense of place, even with development going  on all around, because of visits and advice from the informal garden doctor. Recalls one member of the Little Garden Club, Louise would point to a garden’s essence, with the mantra “Play up, and clear out.”

Above: A garden of pathways and streams, that asks visitors to look around, and then look around again.

Louise Wrinkle assembled some of the region’s most interesting garden figures to help her in reinvigorating the garden. John Wilson of Golightly Landscape Architecture points to the rock work along the creek bed: “They look like they’ve always been there but every rock was meticulously thought out.” Landscape architect Norman Kent Johnson, a member of Louise’s original team, describes the garden as collaborative; it is not the result of garden plans, but was designed on site.

Above: “It’s a designed landscape, not a preserved landscape,” says James Brayton Hall, CEO of the Garden Conservancy.

A Garden in Conversation is the longest film that The Garden Conservancy has made so far (beautifully photographed by Michael Udris), and it is the first one to interview a garden’s creator. James Brayton Hall, CEO of the Garden Conservancy told me: “It’s a wonderful thing to hear a living person talk about how they design their garden, and why they garden. The Garden Conservancy is not about the ‘how’ of gardening; it’s about the ‘why’ of gardening. Gardening is a cultural activity and as Americans we’ve lost sight of that a little bit.”

Above: “Louise’s garden is less about form and more about concept,” says Hall.

The garden was also made to be shared. “What I wanted was to make the whole garden available to other people,” says Louise. Hall adds: “Louise through her garden has created a community of gardeners, and gardening does create community. Gardening is rarely political. You can have different political points of view and still care about, say, delphiniums. One of the most remarkable things about gardening, I still believe, is that you can share your garden so easily.” The garden is not formally open, but inquiries can be made with the Little Garden Club of Birmingham.

Above: Louise Wrinkle’s approach is “inherently sustainable,” says Tom Underwood of the Birmingham Botanic Garden. It showcases the point of “right plant, right place,” it’s low-maintenance besides nudging, and very little of the two acres is devoted to lawn.

A Garden in Conversation is available to watch here. It is part of a series of documentaries, the next of which will be about the Virginia garden of Anne Spencer, activist, gardener, and poet of the Harlem Renaissance.

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