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Living Legacy

Using her artistic talents, this painter-turned-gardener creates a new kind of masterpiece with a profusion of blooms.

  

Once an avid painter, gardening devotee Linda Johnson of Mountain Brook channelled all of that creativity with a brush into tilling and planting, creating what her daughter, Catherine Pittman Smith, refers to as a canvas with her flowers. “I guess I’m an artist at heart,” Linda says. “That spilled over into the yard. When I really got into gardening, I quit painting and stayed outside all the time.”

Linda’s garden is a vivacious tribute to her love of plants from anywhere and everywhere. She has several varieties of hydrangeas—some gifts from friends, some found at retail giants, and some salvaged from the wilderness. “I found a bride’s dream at Lowe’s that was pitiful looking, and it became so beautiful,” Linda says. “I used to haunt those places looking for plants.” One of her favorites, an Everblooming hydrangea, is known for its seasonal color shifts: “It starts out pale green, then turns to white, then pale pink. Then fall comes and brings lime green and magenta colors.”

ABOVE Linda, part owner of The Nest antique shop, often discovers keepsakes like verdigris iron benches and lamb planters while collecting treasures. As a gardener, she meets many who share her love of plants. When one neighbor moved from his three-acre yard filled with beloved plants, he encouraged Linda and other gardeners to dig up shrubs, plants, and bulbs, safeguarding them for future enjoyment.
 

  

ABOVE LEFT Pots of herbs, such as chives and thyme (4), are handy for snapping off a bit here and there to season recipes.

ABOVE RIGHT
 Meyer lemons begin with scented flowers in spring before producing tart fruit in the fall.  
 

A Gardener’s Quest

If you’ve ever driven down a country road and admired perfect oak leaf hydrangeas stalwartly emerging from a stand of brush and trees, or wildflowers determinedly blooming on a patch of sparse grass, you should know that Linda is someone who stops to propagate those blossoms.

“I’m always on the hunt for flowers,” Linda says. “I particularly love heirloom rose bushes. And I love to find old bulbs.”

Her endless quest takes her on forgotten roads and to abandoned homesites—the sort where only old chimneys and flowers from bygone days remain. Some of her plant-foraging adventures are with her antiques business partner, while others have involved family, including daughter Catherine Pittman Smith, who vividly recalls being part of such adventures as a young child. “She used to drag us along as kids,” Catherine says. “We were always gardening, antiquing, or digging up plants somewhere on the side of the road.”

  

ABOVE LEFT In Linda’s bungalow garden, reminiscent of a Monet masterpiece, dark blue clematis springs to life, adding a cool hue to the hot summer. 

ABOVE RIGHT A drive lined with flagstones borders a colorful bed of native phlox and foxglove. 
 

A Visionary’s Splendor

When the landscape isn’t perfect for planting, great gardeners envision the possibilities—they can even move mountains, which is precisely what Linda decided to do to her own yard, having a hill dug out and flattened. She built a wall and patio, and added a lawn space and steps. 

“I also have a vegetable garden out back and find great joy in growing edibles,” Linda says. “I love arugula, tomatoes, and herbs.”

Just outside her back door, Linda also keeps pots filled with herbs like silver and lemon thyme, dill, chives, and rosemary, all handy for seasoning special dishes with home-grown love.

  

ABOVE LEFT A climbing hydrangea blushes pale pink 

ABOVE RIGHT Blue delphiniums, difficult to grow in this part of Alabama, thrive under Linda’s care.
 

ABOVE Antique accents like this iron box, a find at an Atlanta flea market, add a timeless note to the symphony of color.
 

Blooms for Every Season

WINTER “Camellias, with their waxy deep green leaves, bring bursts of color,” Linda says. “They’re a wonderful green shrub—very healthy and very hardy, and they love this climate. Pansies in cool colors of whites, blues, and lavenders get you through the winter.” Linda adds that Irish moss in oversized square pots lends a spring-like element to even the bleakest winter day. 

SPRING In early spring, phlox peeps out in preparation for a long summer showing, while Lenten roses add gentle color to the garden. Linda also likes wild ginger because it brings with it the scent of the season. And she is partial to native honeysuckle and winter honeysuckle for their strong fragrance.

SUMMER Bee balm comes out early, making a seamless segue to summer with purple blooms to attract tiny visitors. “Hummingbirds love bee balm. It was planted next to my window so I was eye-to-eye with these tiny birds,” says Linda. Hydrangeas and herbs, Southern staples, are in their heyday during summer. “And when you plant zinnias, you’ll never need to plant them again,” Linda adds. “They’re happy flowers that continuously reseed.”

Native plants are more of Linda’s favorites, including a keepsake quince plant that has been with four generations of her family, passing from her grandmother to her own children. Whenever Linda moves, the shrub moves with her, just like a treasured antique sideboard. “I’ve always loved quince—it’s not the prettiest bush to some people, but right after Christmas when everything gets gloomy, you can go out and cut it and force the blooms. It brightens everything,” she says.