At the moment, the stars of Loleta Powell’s famous garden are sleeping.
In winter, they’re little more than a promise in a mud puddle. But come spring, then summer, they are color brought to life, flourishing in the rich soil of eastern Johnston County.
Flowers have taken Powell around the world, and her varieties of irises and lilies have spread a small part of Johnston County across four continents. But after nearly 70 years in the garden, 2016 will mark the last season for Powell Gardens, which has always been a backyard enterprise despite the industrial scale of shipping tens of thousands of flowers.
“I didn’t plan to have a commercial garden,” Powell said. “I just always had a garden. I started with strawberries when I was 5 years old.”
To hear Powell speak is to understand her draw to flowers. At 94, her words are deliberate but also poetic, as if she’s landscaping a conversation. With one season of blooms left, her eyes are on her legacy – which will be measured in at least 40 new iris varieties and countless gardens with her work as the centerpiece.
“In breeding flowers, there’s a shared history among them, where whoever’s gone before you has used the best, and you take the best from that,” Powell said.
The oldest of Powell’s three children, Angela French, noted that the Powell family has lived in three houses, leaving bits of gardens behind them. At the current home off of U.S. 70 in Princeton, some plants are 50 years old.
Powell doesn’t think twice about dedicating her life to flowers as opposed to more utilitarian plants. Vegetable gardens offer something nourishing and delicious, yes, but Powell believes flowers are no less vital. She dreams about them in her sleep, and her vision of heaven includes her tending a garden.
“If I get to heaven, I hope the Lord will let me cultivate irises.” she said. “Life wouldn’t be complete without flowers.”
Powell fell in love with flowers as a student at Meredith College, so taken with the irises around campus. Two decades after graduating from the school, she created a hybrid iris bearing Meredith’s white and maroon colors. That iris has since become the college’s official flower.
Powell’s serious gardening hobby blossomed into a business after she began winning local ribbons for her irises. At its largest, her garden included 800 iris varieties, 600 day lilies and 1,500 hostas. Her hosta collection is said to be the largest in North Carolina and among the largest in the country. Powell and her family began shipping seedlings across the country and internationally, receiving awards around the globe.
But flowers were not Powell’s first profession. In 1941, Princeton School principal M.P. Young hired her to teach home economics and senior English. She’d stay in the classroom for 12 years, leaving when her second child, Eugene Powell, was born. She and her husband of 59 years, Elbert Powell, also had a third child, Monica Buchanan.
Powell says that before she ever spoke a word to her husband, or even knew his name, she loved him. While at the school, she and another teacher were walking to the post office and saw a dark green Mercury abruptly stop.
“It let a flock of sparrows cross the road,” Powell said. “It would have crushed them if it hadn’t stopped. I love nature, everything in it, and that impressed me so much, so I asked, ‘Who is that?’ And was told it was Elbert Powell.”
The two began dating after another fortuitous meeting, and while away at war, Elbert proposed in a letter from Paris. Powell said her husband didn’t share her love of flowers but pitched in maintaining the yard and organizing shipping. After 56 years of marriage, he died in 2004.
This may be the last year the garden is open to the public, but Powell’s perennials will come back year after year, lulled by the cool of winter and jolted awake by the warmth of spring. Centuries of cultivation and decades of organization in the Princeton soil have put Powell’s garden together. The plants can take it from here.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson