Listening to the Land

Louise Wrinkle takes her cures from nature when designing her gardens.

Written by Rosalind Fournier/ Garden photos by Mike Hales/ Portrait by Beau Gustafson

After visiting Louise Wrinkle’s home in Mountain Brook and getting a glimpse of her breathtaking, seemingly never-ending expanse of garden, the photographer Mike Hales called Wrinkle with a proposition: He wanted to produce a book about her garden, doing the photography himself and finding someone else to do the writing.

Wrinkle, sitting in a glassed-in room overlooking the property as far as the eye can see, says the idea appealed to her. But she had a different idea of how to go about it. “I said, ‘Well, you can do the pictures, but I’ll do the text,’” she remembers. Hales readily agreed, and Wrinkle embarked on what became a two-year project writing the story of this natural woodland garden that surrounds the home that’s been in her family since she was a young girl.

The result, Listen to the Land: Creating a Southern Woodland Garden (PMT Publishing, 2017) is part memoir, part how-to, detailing the evolution of a gardener and the land she has been cultivating for the past 30 years.

Listen to the Land  contains more than 200 pages of photography by Hales and other professional photographers including Sylvia Martin, Norman Kent Johnson, Beth Maynor Young, as well as shots taken by Wrinkle and one of her daughters, Margaret.

vibrant spring blooms in the cutting garden

This was Wrinkle’s childhood home, and in 1988, she and her husband, John, moved in after her parents passed away. Though her own mother had been a dedicated gardener, Wrinkle says her own love of horticulture began in earnest after her daughters left for college and she started taking horticulture classes at Jefferson State Community College. She was fortunate enough to study there under John Floyd, who was teaching his last class before he went on to become the longtime editor of Southern Living. (Floyd, who has since become a friend, wrote a foreword to the book). She was invited to join the Little Garden Club of Birmingham, and “diligently held a series of offices, from conservation chairman, treasurer, program chairman to president, as I gradually learned more about the plant world.” Eventually she was tapped to serve as chair of the Garden Club of America National Horticulture Committee, which led to speaking engagements around the country.

Wrinkle’s love of horticulture and her encyclopedic knowledge have continued to evolve along with her garden, though clearly both have already exceeded the dreams of most aspiring garden enthusiasts. Looking through Listen to the Land, it’s hard to believe all of that beauty thrives at one single residence in Birmingham. It’s like a private botanical garden in its own right, with Wrinkle as its curator.

When the Wrinkles moved into the home in 1988, she realized the enormity of having inherited the expansive garden that had always been her mother’s domain and was now hers to make decisions as she saw fit. “It was thrilling to have that freedom, but a big responsibility too,” she says. Wrinkle credits a number of people who have helped her over the years, including a group she calls “the committee”—landscape architect Norman Kent Johnson, architect Dick Pigford, landscape contractor John McNabb, and Beaty Hanna, also a landscape architect. Yet her other guide—as the book’s name suggests—was simply the land itself. “I feel like it’s a unique piece of territory,” she says. “So instead of installing a beautiful lawn and set landscape, I wanted to listen to what the land says and what it suggests and follow those suggestions, keeping the characteristics of the land and its idiosyncrasies.”

With the exception of a formal sunken garden Wrinkle’s mother put in years ago, the terrain is all shaded hills and valleys with a brook running through it. The focus is on native plants and trees, as well as those that come from elsewhere but make themselves at home. You have to look closely to understand it doesn’t all happen by pure magic. Wrinkle takes great care with placement, taking note of scale and color and, of course, the simple test of whether or not something thrives where it is or would be happier somewhere else.

But it’s really a matter of tweaking without controlling. “I want things to look like they would be naturally occurring,” she says. “I’m sort of a minimalist and don’t like things that are too studied, too artificial.”

“My daughter introduced me to a Japanese philosophical concept called wabi sabi. It’s the appreciation of imperfection. And it’s the way things naturally grow.” All of it is enhanced with hardscaping that blends in perfectly, from rustic handrails and bridges to stone steps and rock benches added to make the garden easier to enjoy without interrupting the natural flow. There are no gargoyles, lion heads or anything that sniffs of artifice. In fact, a fountain one of her landscape architects recommended to mute sound from the street was made from a discarded piece of copper she and a couple of friends found while digging through the local junkyard for hidden treasure. “I saw it and thought, ‘That ought not end up in a smelter. It ought to have a better life than that,’ so I brought it home,” Wrinkle recalls. “Now it’s my own, abstract sculpture.”

Most of all the garden tells a story, which Wrinkle is happy to share in Listening to the Land. “I think people are interested in the life experiences of gardeners,” she says. “I wanted to share what I’ve done, what’s succeeded and what’s failed.

“And I’m interested in the people who stop me now to ask about it,” Wrinkle continues. “I had somebody at church yesterday, and somebody else at the grocery store, who said, ‘Are you Louise Wrinkle?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ And they said, ‘Oh, I’m enjoying your book.’ These people I have never have met have enjoyed it, which makes me feel really good.” 

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