The Constant Gardener

Mac Houfek delights in infinite possibilities.

by Janine Latus photography by Eric Lusher

Black branches scrape the sky and sharp-tipped magnolia leaves litter the lawn, yet Mac Houfek sees buds and blooms, fronds and fat flowers dripping dew. They’ll be here soon, and they’ll need her rake and her trowel, and most of all her pruning shears. They are her paintbrush, her poetic pen, her tool for shaping bundled branches into bonsais.

Look, there, at that patch of muddy ground. There are bulbs there, black tulips maybe, and around them the chartreuse of creeping jenny. Or a surprise – something new she found in the fall that will show itself only now, as the sun warms the soil. And over there, in the Oriental garden, her favorite fern. Crispy brown now but soon, oh, those question marks will unfurl, a bright spring green. It’s her favorite fern, fat and full, too big for the space, she says, “but it’s so happy I wouldn’t move it for the world.”

Mac sits on her Virginia Beach sun porch in excited anticipation. It will be here soon, spring, and she will spend hours each day pulling weeds and trimming box woods, pushing aside leaves to find tender sprigs that will grow and bloom and send their scent forth on the wind. Every single plant in her nearly 2-acre garden must be cleaned and groomed, and especially pruned, and the thought of this brings joy.

“I love to prune. It’s probably my favorite thing to do in the garden,” Mac says. “A pair of pruning shears to a gardener is like a paintbrush is to an artist.”

Mac, 68, is a longtime member of the Virginia Beach Garden Club and a board member of the Norfolk Botanical Garden, and author of Reflections on a Coastal Garden, with Ann Wright. Her writing makes you feel “like a treasured guest,” according to a review by gardening author Catriona Tudor Erier.

Reflections includes a list of Mac’s 30 favorite plants. The list was supposed to stop at 25, but she couldn’t narrow it that much,sitting on her sun porch, flipping through gardening books.

She forgot that one, and oh, which one could she let go to let this other one in?

Even now she’d change it, because of new hybrids that have since come on the market. Limiting herself to favorites is hard for Mac –she’s always looking for the new and surprising to tuck in among her staples.Still the 30 favorites are included for good reasons.

“If I can grow ’em here,” she says, “so can a lot of other people.”

Her gardening began with house plants, when she and her husband, Steve Houfek, were young and didn’t have enough money to fill their home with furniture. She expanded into the yard, starting with old standbys and becoming increasingly adventurous as the years wore on. She planted shade plants in the sun and learned from her mistake. She planted thirsty plants next to those who like it dry. Like every gardener, she tried and she failed and she tried and she succeeded and she is still trying.

This particular garden began when Mac was 50 and far too young to have run out of places to plant. The youngest child had left for college and by all rights she and Steve should have been downsizing, but her garden was chockablock with ferns and hostas, and azaleas she’d dug out of her own mother’s yard. The only answer was to move. Just eight blocks, and while the new house was huge and gorgeous, what captivated Mac was the acreage.Overgrown and brambly, the azaleas fat and clogged with brush, their architecture hidden behind last season’s suckers and the shower of pine needles from above.

There was nothing but potential.

She started at the side of the house, schlepping bags of soil because that was all she could carry. Steve graded the slope into terraces, and Mac commissioned a local welder to create a gate with a metal version of the acanthus, one of the most prominent plants in her garden. She added a mirror against a shed so that she could see the bird bath from the kitchen window. She pruned up an evergreen Osmanthus and tucked orchids in its forks. She laid down slate tiles with dwarf black mondo between each and created an outdoor room, her first.

On the other side of the house is another gate, and if it’s open you’re welcome to visit. That’s the way it is in Charleston, Mac’s favorite city, and that’s the way it is here, in her Charleston garden, with its brick wall for privacy, its fountain for sound, its formal hedging and floor of slate.

She’s watching the weather now, her cache of annuals still protected in the garage, waiting for April 15, the frost-free date herein Virginia, so she can array them as splashes of color against the brick. Her fingers itch to get them out, but experience has taught her patience.

At her last home she kept expensive koi in her fountain pool – she even gave them names – until she came around a corner to find a heron gulping an easy supper. This pool has 99 cent goldfish, because Mac decided long ago that the animals were here first, so why fight them? The sides of the lot are wooded and she has plenty of bunny and bird guests, but luckily no deer yet.

Mac has plenty of human guests, too. She opens her garden constantly to visiting gardeners, to children who seek out and count the frog statues through the woodland garden trail, and once to the crew of HGTV’s A Gardener’s Diary.

She lives in harmony with nature, even when nature gets under her craw, like the giant magnolia that dropped so many leaves that Mac was ready to give up and cut it down. But then while visiting family in Charleston she saw one that had had every other limb removed. She brought in anarborist and voila, a beautiful skeleton emerged, the leaf problem was cut in half, and sun once again flooded the ground, giving her one more space to plant.

There is the white garden, every blossom white, the Carolina jasmine sending its gorgeous scent across the grass and out to the golf course beyond. The original owner of the home had planted camellias all around the property, and by the time the Houfeks bought it they were huge and jungley. She stood in front of one, pruners in hand, and saw a form that spoke Japanese to her. So she pruned it into bonsai form, put in a bamboo lattice and a waterfall, planted a Japanese maple and added a bench with Japanese inscriptions. Beneath the leaves right now there are stones placed just so – a flow of pebbles between bigger stones, soon to be hidden by peacock moss or the ground cover Mazus. It’s a garden of texture and form, not flowers.

She laid out proper English gardens in front of the house, to complement its stately shape. She built an Italian garden, formal and symmetrical, because if she could have one garden room as a homage to her favorite city, why not one to her favorite country? Low concrete balusters define the entryway, and the center of attention is an alabaster sculpture of a goddess. On the other side of the house is the woodland garden, with a peony tree, its rotund top grafted onto a sturdy trunk, its blooms the size of grapefruits. There is Chinese indigo, with blossoms like a small version of pink wisteria, and stachyurus, its clusters of flowers cascading over a piece of rebar bent into an arch.

An ancient dogwood hangs over the driveway, its dead branches supporting a climbing hydrangea that sends blooms high into the sky. There are hostas of deep green and pale, variegated and with ruffled edges, and crape myrtles limbed up to show off their bark. Mac uses arborvitae and clematis everywhere, to give the garden consistency. And she still grieves that she lost one of her two giant black cherry trees. Still, losing it allowed more sunshine, which means more plants.

And each has a story. This redbud with its venerable knobs was supposed to have died, so she’d planted the youthful new variety Rising Sun, and now aren’t they beautiful together? And that camellia!

“We dug it out and dragged it behind the car, it was so big,” she says, “then mushroomed it up.”

The work is relentless, especially in the spring, but it’s what makes her happy, and once again her garden is full.

“Now we’re at the end and I find myself right back at the beginning again,” she says. “I have planted my garden to the max, only I will not be leaving it. I’ve learned that you can replace the ordinary with the extra ordinary.”

When she does she takes that more common plant down the road to a neighbor, or hands it off to a guest on a garden tour.

“Some people love cars and collect automobiles,” she says. “I love greenery. And that’s the fun of gardening, the beauty you create and the ways you can share it.”