Prim and proper in the front, magical and fantastical in the back, Joanne Cheatham and Bill di Pretoro’s garden on North Main Street is the equivalent of a horticultural mullet.
The further one descends down the levels of the sloped property, the more otherworldly it becomes. After passing wooded glades where Inigo Montoya could easily step at any moment from behind an ancient tree and command that you “prepare to die,” one encounters charming sculptures that might populate Alice’s Wonderland and ultimately arrives at the ruins of an old summer kitchen that appears to have been teleported directly from Middle Earth.
The contrast with the front’s perennial beds, curving lawns and Victorian gingerbread speaks of quite a journey.
The magical ruin out back is, in fact, a perfectly ordinary old summer kitchen, a relic of a time when people who had the means to do so built an outbuilding to do the summer cooking and keep the sweltering heat of a wood stove out of the house. But a gnarled old tree with roots twisting through the walls has sprung up sometime in the past century and feeling the space needed a floor, Joanne Cheatham has created a checkerboard floor of stones and moss that is pure “Through the Looking Glass.” Joanne says, “Sometimes we think about putting our Adirondack chairs down here and people are always suggesting we have a garden party here,” but one gets the feeling that if they did, Alice and The Red Queen might join them for a game of chess.
Joanne admits to a sense of whimsy, but says, “Oh, I’m going to sound like a nut. But, I spend so much time working, when I come home, I love things that make me smile.”
When planning her home’s landscape, she says she was shooting for a woodland garden, a peaceful place that wasn’t too fussy. She wanted a lot of birds.
Speaking of her home’s central location, she says, “I enjoy Main Street. But then I want to get away from it.” And she is indeed close to the business district. Wells Fargo Bank is next door and she can see the ATM from her bathroom window. She jokes of the convenience of having an ATM in such close proximity, implying that restoring an old home is not an inexpensive endeavor.
The house was built by William Merritt between 1896 and 1898 for his parents. He lived in the brick house next door that now houses “Heart and Soul Bed and Breakfast.” Joanne says it changed hands many times over the years. She bought it in 1996, spending her first six months demolishing peculiar additions and “appendages” that had been added, then began to update the home while keeping its integrity.
She has done the same in the garden, trying to use as many plants as possible that are age-appropriate for the property. She has used sweet shrub, sweet bubba, witch hazel, hydrangea, boxwood, dogwoods, redbuds and St. John’s wort.
Joanne planted some sweet shrub near an entrance to the house as was commonly done in days of old, though she says she has not used it for the purpose for which it was intended. Back in the day, after having gotten sweaty in the garden, the ladies would place a sprig of sweet shrub blossoms, which, as advertised, are indeed sweet, in their brassiere to freshen up a bit before going indoors. The romance of the story clearly delights her.
“There are some lilacs in the back yard that have been there forever,” she says. They don’t do very well. They bloom a bit every spring but it’s far too shady for them there, but she doesn’t move them. The knowledge that one of her predecessors put them there is enough to keep them where they are.
In a garden as old as this one, things change. Trees grow, shade is created where the sun once shone. Trees age and die and either fall or are removed, bringing the sun to an area that was once fully shaded.
In fact, Joanne has a tree in the back that is dying and will have to be removed. The area around it is planted to accommodate the deep shade it creates and that shade is about to disappear. She planted a redbud at the front corner of the house to punctuate the roses she grows in the sunniest spot she has. As it grows, she realized it might be a game-changer there.
With her fiancé Bill di Pretoro by her side — who Joanne freely admits does all the heavy lifting — Joanne does not think they will run out of things to do very soon.
“That would be disappointing. We can always stick something in.”
On Saturday, “Mount Airy Blooms” will allow the public a chance to experience the peace and wonderment of Joanne and Bill’s garden and perhaps to steal a few ideas.
“Mount Airy Blooms” is Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Tickets for the tour are $20 and are on sale at Webb Interiors, 1191 W. Lebanon St., Mount Airy, and at the Mount Airy Visitors Center, 200 N. Main St., Mount Airy and online at Eventbrite.com.
Proceeds raised from “Mount Airy Blooms” will go to support garden club projects in the area, including the Joan and Howard Woltz Hospice Home Rose Garden, restoration of the gardens at the Historic Moore House, maintenance and upkeep of the Main Street mini-garden fountain, lobby arrangements at Northern Hospital and special programming for the Jones School exceptional children’s class.
The tour is not a home tour. The gardens will be open but the houses will not be. Public restrooms will be available at the Main Street comfort station and at Cross Creek Country Club.
The tour is underwritten by BB&T Insurance Services, Inc., Carolina Environmental Contracting, Inc. and SouthData, Inc., as well as other sponsors and contributors.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.