Good to Grow: Being introduced to Alma Lee

Along the river bank in Malden surrounded by salt, coal and history sits the Alma Lee. She is a true southerner with wide porches and welcoming spots to rest and take in the water views.

Greeted by a kind host and a cottage garden bursting with sweat peas, black-eyed Susans, hydrangeas, and an ice cream crepe myrtle ready to burst into bloom, I knew this was going to be a special place.

Behind the sunny beds, I saw a backdrop of white lattice, the front border edged in large river stones gathered over time, a metal obelisk and a wrought iron bench come together to create a charming garden.

Taking a closer look, I saw Queen Anne’s lace that had self-seeded to fill in the space, a money plant and primrose with a delicate two-toned leaf. I just missed the yellow bearded iris blooming, but I’m sure they were beautiful.

This garden receives full sun and the perennials are thriving. It begs you to snip fresh blossoms and given the variety of plants, you could create a different bouquet each week.

Walking along the side porch scattered with cheerful pots of annuals including dianthuses and begonias, it is quite sunny. As we reach the back, there is more seating, ceiling fans, and steps to the lower garden and I began to feel cooler. Before taking the steps, I lingered to soak in the calming view. The Kanawha River is flowing, the garden rambles through the lower yard and I feel the history of the house and the area.

The Alma Lee is named after the owner’s grandmother, who purchased the 1905 four-room cottage from Minnie Wayne Cooper, a family friend of Booker T. Washington. The current house was built in 1998, incorporating windows, doors and floors from the original cottage. The history of this town and the people who called it home are the subject of many books; it is humbling to see their early beginnings and know the great success they achieved.

The river, as it was then and continues to be, is the main attraction and is now enhanced by a beautiful garden. Taking the steps from the upper porches of the Alma Lee to the gardens below you can feel the temperature drop. Maybe it is the shade trees, but I like to think it is the water. If I lived here, this would be my spot for morning tea or an afternoon spent with a good book. Here the soil is rich. I’m told it’s a river loam and “that a broom handle would bloom with rain and more rain.”

The lower level has rooms of woodland gardens and a river border. I’m quite taken with the woodlands. A Japanese maple tree surrounded with hostas and lush ferns catches my attention. The hostas are in bloom. Obviously, there are no deer on the river. The purple hosta spikes, complimented by blooming citrus-colored daylilies, again prove there are no deer on the river. I really like the gentle curve of the hosta border; it flows through the garden much as the river flows through the valley. These cool colors are a contrast to the cottage garden we left moments ago.

The riverbank garden is framed by a bare wood picket fence. Planted with roses, irises, more daylilies and dwarf spruce shrubs, the simplicity of this bed lets the river be the star. Beyond the fence, the lower riverbank is planted with grasses, not only to protect the riverbank soil from erosion, but to create a pleasant view only seen by river traffic. It is another example of the care that has gone into curating these gardens.

Traveling through the yard, I see the pergola and bench where once upon a time the owners decided to marry. Neighboring the spot is a Japanese dogwood tree given as a wedding present from the bride to the groom. There is a flagpole and memorial to the owner’s uncle, the man he was named after, 1st Lt. Claude Linwell Rowe Jr., killed in the Battle of the Bulge on Christmas Eve in 1944.

I see canna lilies from Mrs. Cooper’s garden continuing to bloom today, trees protected from the river beavers and signs of a pup with gates and protective fencing slyly added to the grounds. This garden thrives because of the thoughtful attention it receives from the owners. Their love of gardening is felt in each of the garden beds. It has provided joy and beauty for those in the past, the present, and hopefully the future.

To finish my visit in Malden, we stop to visit a neighboring private garden. It is shady and simple. Spots to rest and chat with friends are scattered throughout and so are pots of annuals creating a colorful focal point and giving the eye somewhere to land. This garden is designed to be a peaceful and calming presence for those who visit.

With the temperatures high in the 90s on the day of my visit, I admit to being drawn to the shady spots. The ceiling fans of the porches, and the coolness of watching the water under a canopy of trees provided the perfect escape. Thank you to Delegate Larry Rowe, his wife Julia Berry, and others for inviting me to learn more about Malden and the lovely gardens you have created.