Native Son: June 2014
by Steven Chamblee
Garden of Grace
Driving down the seemingly endless serpentine roads of Granbury’s Pecan Plantation, I think about the time I met Nancy Fernandes. I was giving a talk to a large group of ladies, and asked who had used an angle grinder to cut steel and stone for garden projects. From the back of the room came, “I’ve got one,” followed by a quiet chorus from the group: “If anybody would, it would be Nancy.” Sixty feet away from me, her bright eyes and kind smile shone brightly. I knew I had found somebody special.
In Granbury, Nancy greets me with a big smile and a gentle hug. The garden glows with color behind her as she unwraps the Murex endiva seashell I brought her. It looks better cupped in her hand than it ever did in my curio cabinet, and it is in this moment that I fully comprehend the shell is, in fact, the beautiful home crafted and created by its snail. It is the external expression of the creator’s inner self … which sounds a lot like the definition I use to describe a garden or a work of art. Today, I am standing in an artist’s garden.
We stroll past large, alternating drifts of columbine, iris, phlox, and daylilies, accented with emerging feathers of larkspur, on our way down to a seating area to chat. Amidst the blossoms, colored bottles sparkle in the sun, rusted garden accoutrements support tender stems, and animal figurines peek from every nook and cranny. Vines climb and scramble across the boughs of homemade arbors, held together with baling wire. Birds, bees, and butterflies flit about, feasting upon the bounty of the garden. A single strand of hotwire outlines each bed in the garden…. “The deer have learned to eat somewhere else.”
“You are now entering Nana Banana’s Noodle Garden,” Nancy informs me as we approach a sculpture that fuses the spirit of Carmen Miranda with that of a Cosmic Cowboy in a discotheque. From her mosaic glass globe hat down to the bottom of her spun-rope dress, Nana Banana rules the garden. The sculpted blue tree beside her properly complements Her Royal Silliness. Nancy tells me how a child named this area…. “New little garden” was mispronounced as “noodle garden” … which delighted her so much she just went with it and created the statue to fit the name. It dawns on me that I, too, seem to draw big inspiration from little moments in life.
We chat for a while under an umbrella of cedar elm and live oak trees. Nancy says, “I grew up on 10 acres on the outskirts of Shawnee, Oklahoma. My grandfather lived next door, and had a lake, an antique car collection and lots of animals … including deer and horses. It was everything a child could want. Three or four times a day, I headed out the door for a new adventure.” Her faraway, contemplative gaze tells me that she can still see it all clearly.
I am surprised when Nancy says she was an adult before being enlightened about horticulture. An intuitive artist with formal university training in fine art, she finds gardening is simply a natural extension of her expressions … a living, ever-changing palette upon which to paint. Her garden reflects the planning and attention to detail required of canvas artists. Botanical names flow like poetic colors from her lips … she makes Polygonum and Lamiastrum sound like lustrous hues of magenta and cadmium.
She tells me about some of the experiences that have developed her as a gardener, and I chuckle in kinship. “I built my first pond back in the ‘70s. I broke my car hauling leftover rocks from construction sites, but it was worth it. My first koi cost five dollars.”
Back in the ‘90s, Nancy bought a “whole bunch of tulips” on a whim, and planted them everywhere in her garden. By coincidence, Oklahoma City Beautiful had a tulip festival that year, and awarded her with a plaque, a party, and a trip to Holland … Holland, Michigan. Turns out, the highlight of the trip was rearranging the passengers in the tiny “puddle-jumper airplane” to even out the weight load, so it could fly without lilting.
Nancy’s 4-acre garden in Edmond, Oklahoma, was on the national tours of both the Iris Society and the Daylily Society, and was featured in Fine Gardening magazine. She smiles and shakes her head a bit, “I’ve learned … full bloom always arrives a few days after the tours leave.”
We continue our way around the garden, eventually arriving at a multi-level, terraced garden overlooking the Brazos River. A few large butterfly koi swim slowly around the pond as an energetic school of their progeny darts about. A cool breeze blows in from the river, and the tree leaves dance in celebration. Nancy drinks it in.
“You know, I have always found some treasure in every garden I have been to … big or small. It’s usually a little something that the gardener has created; something they made from nothing.” Her comment triggers my thoughts on how every painting in history started with a blank canvas; every garden with simple earth … it takes a person to bring it to life. She adds, “I encourage new gardeners to make their gardens fun. Anything goes. The main thing is to be out in the garden … especially when it’s misting.”
Eventually, Nancy talks about life’s struggles; her husband now has Alzheimer’s, she has cancer, and they both survived the loss of a child. A serious, yet undaunted expression lands upon Nancy’s face. “Yes, I’ve had some difficult times, but my blessings have been tenfold. When I really think about it, it’s probably more like a thousand fold.” Her gaze extends across the river. “For 24 years, my husband has literally been the wind beneath my wings.” She pauses pensively for a moment, then grins, “And he only gave me a little guff over that koi pond.”
Back at my truck, she insists on sharing a few plants with me. Somehow or another, the subject of baling wire comes up. Nancy sighs heavily, “Oh dear, I’ve lost my source for baling wire … the good kind that rusts a lot.” Her eyes light up when I pull a roll from my toolbox. We both know that it’s not just wire to her; it’s an opportunity to create something new.
Family members arrive to help Nancy prepare for her move to a smaller residence. She says with resolve, “I’m not sure where I’m going, but I will have a garden. I will always garden. It’s what I do; it’s who I am.”
Visit Nancy’s website at www.down2earthstudio.com for amazing photos and comments about her gardens. Click the link to the left of her guest book to see her amazing gallery of gardens.
Nancy once recruited her son, Jack, 11 years old at the time, for an all-day hole-digging session in the garden. That night, he went missing from his bedroom. They soon found him out in the garden … digging holes while sleepwalking!
Steven adds these notes:
Come out and breathe in the beauty of a Texas spring at Chandor Gardens! Go to www.chandorgardens.com for details. Just take I-20 west to exit 409, hang a right, go 2.1 miles and hang a left on Lee Avenue. Head straight 12 blocks and you’re driving in the gates. Call 817-361-1700 for more information.
I can always use another road trip! Let me know if you’d like me to come out and speak to your group sometime. I’m low-maintenance, flexible, and you know I like to go just about anywhere. No city too big; no town too small. Just send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll work something out.