Plant collector and protector

Story and Photo by Katie Jackson

Tucked behind two houses on Woodfield Drive in Auburn is a hidden garden where both history and plants are nurtured and protected under the watchful eye of Ken Rogers.

Rogers, now a retired conservation agronomist, grew up on a Jackson County farm where his gardening experience was limited mostly to vegetables. He developed a deep affinity for ornamental plants, however, while an undergraduate at Auburn University in the 1970s and ended up getting a degree in horticulture. 

Though his career path took a turn toward agronomic rather than ornamental crops, Rogers continued to expand his personal horticultural skills and also began amassing a personal collection of plants. As that collection grew, so did Rogers’ need for a permanent home for those plants. 

“Hardly a week goes by when someone doesn’t knock on our door asking if we want to sell.”

He and his wife, Susan, eventually found the perfect spot in the 1990s when they bought a lovely older home and its adjoining 7-plus acres on Woodfield Drive, a neighborhood located just a mile or two from Auburn’s famous downtown Toomer’s Corner and on land first developed by the city’s founding families. “When we bought this place, it was so filled with privet, bamboo, wisteria, and other invasive species you couldn’t see it,” said Rogers. But he worked hard to uncover the property’s rolling landscape, which slopes downhill to the banks of one of Auburn’s main tributaries, Town Creek, to make space for the plants he loved. In the process, he also uncovered the trace of a historic bike trail that Auburn residents once used to pedal their way along the creek to a favorite swimming hole several miles downstream.

On either side of that trail and creek, sheltered below a canopy of old hemlocks (Tsuga), Magnolia, and other hardwoods (homes to nesting owls and hawks), Rogers developed a woodland garden, a look and style he prefers to more manicured, formal landscapes. “I’m more of a collector, not a landscaper or designer,” Rogers said. “I don’t need order in my garden.” 

The entrance to Ken Rogers’s garden leads into a flower garden filled with roses, wildflowers and many other blooming plants.

Two areas of the property are devoted to “order,” a flower garden that serves as an entryway into the wooded area, and a fruit and vegetable garden across the creek where Rogers also tends an ever-expanding assortment of daylilies (Hemerocallis). But the rest of the property remains an informal, naturalized space where various outbuildings, including a rustic potting shed and a separate workshop, blend in with Rogers’s remarkable collection of plants. 

Among those plants are more than 400 Camellia and an equal number of Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), as well as boxwood (Buxus spp.), blueberries, native and nonnative Rhododendron, native vines and ground covers, and much more. 

That’s a lot of plants to take care of, and it’s always expanding, but because Rogers does most of the work in the garden himself, he strives for a low-maintenance landscape, which he accomplishes by carefully picking and preparing a site for each plant where it can thrive with minimal irrigation and pampering. That approach also affords him time to pursue his other horticultural passion – creating new plants. 

A master propagator, Rogers is known throughout the state and region for his grafting skills and for his gift of being able to grow almost any plant from seeds and cuttings, something he does every chance he gets. “I’m pretty much grafting or seeding something year round,” he said.

Plant propagation not only allows Rogers to expand and share his current plant collection, it also allows him to preserve old and create new plants. Rogers has not only propagated new populations of hard-to-find heirloom plants, he’s also developed new cultivars of plants ranging from camellias to daylilies to muscadines. 

Rogers began growing daylilies several years ago when he collected some from a neighbor. Not only are they beautiful, low-maintenance plants, they also work well in rotation with his vegetable crops to help control nematodes. He’s now crossbreeding daylilies in an effort to develop new cultivars that are both beautiful and healthy. “I want ones that live in the real world,” he said.

Though Rogers can happily immerse himself in the solitary work of gardening, he’s as much a people person as a plant person. He generously shares his hidden gem of a garden with interested visitors, and his gardening knowledge and expertise are often showcased at grafting and plant workshops. 

He is, however, fiercely protective of the plants and history that thrive in his garden, which is in an area where new development projects are taking a toll on many of Auburn’s old houses and historic landmarks. 

“Hardly a week goes by when someone doesn’t knock on our door asking if we want to sell,” he said. But Rogers, who recently bought and renovated his next-door neighbor’s house, is firmly committed to preserving both of these historic Woodfield Drive homes and the plants and the history that have taken root on the land behind them.  

“No way I’m selling,” he said.

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