Telling the story of life in the yard

Story and Photo by Dwain Hebda

The walls on Master Gardener Margaret Rose Nalley’s Little Rock home hold an amazing collection of photos and historic knick-knacks curated from generations of her family’s life. “I’d love to give you a tour, but I don’t think you have that much time,” she tells the visitor. “Everything here has a story attached to it.”

The same can be said for Nalley’s manicured yard. Walking through the various outdoor vignettes – “rooms” as Nalley calls them – is like climbing her family tree. The spaces are filled with plants that have been relocated from other family gardens she’s tended through the years, as well as new ones that represent the current chapter in her life. And yes, everything here has a story, too. “This is my story,” she said. “I move things because I want to stay connected with them.” 

“Start with some things that you love; either something that you’ve seen somewhere or you’re like me and you’re sentimental and you love it because your mother loved it and it reminds you of home.”

As passionate – some might say obsessive – as Nalley is for plants, both old and new, in her yard, she wasn’t always wild about gardening. As a youth, she and her sister were tasked with maintaining the 3-acre grounds of the North Little Rock restaurant and rental cottages her parents owned and the daily grind of mowing and weeding felt a lot like work.

As an adult, however, she discovered that preserving plants that were loved by the people most important to her – or those she grew during different phases of married and family life – took on added significance. “My mother was always growing things. Hydrangeas, she had beautiful hydrangeas and rose of Sharon and whatever could grow she was always trying to grow it,” she said. “When my mother died, I started moving things because I didn’t want to lose them.”

In a very real sense, Nalley’s yard is something of a plant sanctuary, where the rescued and refugees are nursed back to health. There’s heirloom Hydrangea, Sedum and rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) from her parents’ home, Iris that have grown in two or three of her yards and assorted Hosta. 

Mondo grass (Ophiopogon spp.) and potted boxwood (Buxus spp.) bound for the trash heap at Little Rock’s Old Statehouse Museum, where she works with other master gardeners tending public gardening spaces, have found new life here. There’s even a red oak (Quercus rubra) that was pried out of the ground and brought to her current home from a previous one. “Every place we’ve been we’ve dug things up and took them with us,” she said, then added a laugh. “Well, I say ‘we’ rather loosely. My poor, long-suffering husband!”

As she walks through her living scrapbook, Nalley shares the backstory of everything the visitor sees, right down to the stump of a tree hit by lightning shortly after they moved in. The plants are bookmarks, anchoring moments and creatures in time – a stand of Little Henry sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Sprich’) in honor of grandson Henry here, a sturdy stand of Euonymus in memory of past pets there. The most poignant of all is the sawtooth oak (Q. acutissima) out front. 

“My ‘Judy Tree’ is named after a very dear friend who gave me a sawtooth oak sapling from her yard, which we planted in our yard,” she said. “When we moved, it was determined that it couldn’t be moved without great risk to the tree, so we decided to leave that beautiful tree and I brought one from somewhere else to replace it.”

For all of her green and blooming treasures, Nalley isn’t a hoarder. In fact, over the years she has shared even her heirloom specimens with friends and fellow gardeners. A master gardener since 2007, she’s as generous with gardening advice and tips as she is with her plants.

“Get to know your soil and get to know your yard,” she said is her number one rule for beginners. “Start with some things that you love; either something that you’ve seen somewhere or you’re like me and you’re sentimental and you love it because your mother loved it and it reminds you of home.”

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