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Shared stories bring garden writer Henry Mitchell to life

Jan Hearne • Apr 16, 2012 at 9:40 AM

Recently and often I have written about my admiration for the late Henry Mitchell, who wrote a garden column for the Washington Post. I have been his devoted follower since the late 1980s when I lived in the D.C. area and the Post landed on my doorstep every morning.

I was absolutely floored when I got an email this week from Sara Dalcher, whom I profiled in a Tempo article earlier this year. She commented on a column I had written recently about spring and Mr. Mitchell, adding “I didn’t mention it during the interview, but the Mitchells were our next-door neighbors for 30-plus years.”

Of course, I immediately had to visit with Sara and ask a million questions, most importantly, “What did his garden look like?”

“There wasn’t a blade of grass in his yard,” she said. “He had stuff all over the place. Hank couldn’t have cared less what it looked like, it was his laboratory.”

She sketched out a diagram of the Mitchell garden on a Post-it note. Mr. Mitchell’s yard was longer than it was wide and bordered on two sides by alleyways. The Dalcher home and garden were to the left of the Mitchells’.

It featured a rose arbor and irises, his favorite plant. One area was a designated burial ground for the family dogs. Mr. Mitchell loved his terriers and basset hounds. “You’d better like dogs if you wanted to visit,” Sara said.

In the back of the property was a rickety garage, and along one side, an even more rickety fence. “Hank was into benign neglect in a big way,” Sara said.

The focal point of his garden was a lily pond, which he wrote about often. In the late fall, he brought big pots of water plants into the house to overwinter. I asked Sara how his wife handled that.

Sara smiled. “If Hank was happy, then Ginny was happy.” As Sara described them, the Mitchells were totally in the moment and at home in the world.

Mr. Mitchell drove a VW Golf to which he “permanently attached a tarp,” Sara said. He hauled plants and manure in his car; he drove the same car to receptions at the British Embassy.

“Hank was unique in many ways. He had a delightful Southern drawl, he was brilliant and could come up with turns of phrase that were most unusual,” she said.

What he lacked, however, was a sense of direction. In her email Sara wrote, “Soil preparation involved lots of mulch and manure, which Hank easily obtained from the Park Police stables. When the nearby Maryland stables were closed temporarily, Hank headed across the Potomac to retrieve a carload from the Virginia stables.

“Unfortunately, Hank didn’t pay much attention when he got behind the wheel, so he was the only one NOT seriously worried when he called Ginny hours later from a pay phone in Delaware saying he had ‘taken a wrong turn somewhere.’ We would have been no less surprised if he had called from Georgia.”

It was in the Dalcher’s garden on a fall day in 1993 that Mr. Mitchell died suddenly (though not unexpectedly — he had been battling cancer).

He was planting daffodils.

Jan Hearne is the Press Tempo editor. Reach her at jhearne@johnsoncitypress.com.

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