Spring Forth Greensboro!

Get outside and enjoy the lusty month of May

One of the things we love most about life in the Gate City is the abundance of fantastic outdoor activities four seasons of the year. We confess, however, a slight but delicious prejudice in favor of springtime in The Boro — especially cometh the lusty month of May, when we find ourselves involuntarily and shamefully warbling bits of Frederick Loewe’s sensuous anthem to the month from the musical Camelot:

It’s May, it’s May . . . the lusty month of May!

That darling month when everyone throws self control away

It’s time, to do, a wretched thing or two

And try to make each precious day, one you’ll always rue

It’s May, it’s May, the month of yes you may

The time for every frivolous whim, proper or im-

The lusty month of May!

With lusty apologies to Queen Guinevere for such wretched singing, you probably get the point. It’s time to join the amorous birds and bees, ye old (and young) fellow citizens of the Camelot of the Triad. In order to soak in the glories of springtime in the city, we put our heads together and came up with nine of our favorite outside pursuits when spring is in the air!
— The musical cast of
O.Henry

 

Photograph by Bert Vanderveen

Strut Your Stuff in The Neighborhood

We maintain that the glory of G’town is the supreme walkability of our beautiful neighborhoods. Is there a better place on the planet to stroll with family or friends and Fido than on a perfect spring morning or late afternoon in the neighborhood you call home? We think not. Multitudes of joggers, walking groups, solo hikers, health nuts, senior hoofers and a half a million pooches walking their pampered owners agree. Frankly, we can’t think of a better way to finally meet your neighbors and learn what’s really happening just around the block.

Photograph by Bert Vanderveen

Outdoor Market

Follow your nose and BYO bag to the corner of Kensington and Market, where the air is lush with the smell of spring veggies and blooms, plus freshly baked bread, bagels and confections. The Corner Farmers Market features an array of vendors peddling produce and hand-made artisanal goods. Info: www.cornermarketgso.com/

 

Photographs courtesy of Lawn Service

Sip ’n Cycle with Lawn Service

Parenthood is a walk in the park now that Lawn Service is at LeBauer Park. Sip wine, beer or caffeinated beverages while refueling the littles with ice cream after a romp on the playground. Plus, ride like the wind — or a gently blowing spring breeze — every Thursday during cycle club. Info: www.littlebrotherbrew.com/lawnservicegso

 

Courtesy of SKYWILD

High Time to Get Moving

Summon your inner George or Jane of the Jungle and hit SKYWILD’s treetop course at the Greensboro Science Center. Nervous? Don’t be — a guide will show you the ropes.
Info: www.skywild.org

 

Courtesy of Get:Outdoors

Women on the Water

Don’t flip your lid — or your kayak. GetOutdoors Women on the Water — a.k.a GO WOW — is WOWing those who want to learn what you can do with a paddle and a kayak by offering classes and special events. Info: www.shopgetoutdoors.com

 

   

Courtesy of Greensboro Grasshoppers

Diamonds Are for Summer

Play ball! Or — better yet — sit back, have a beer and watch the Greensboro Grasshoppers cover all the bases at a home game. And if the crack of the bat isn’t explosive enough for you, don’t miss Friday and Saturday night fireworks. Info: www.milb.com/greensboro

Everyone Can Play at Keeley Park

Come one, come all to the Up in the Air inclusive playground at Keeley Park, where everyone can get in on the action, thanks to accessibility ramps galore. Also at this park, play a full 18-hole disc golf course and cool off on the refreshing spray ground. Truly something for everyone. Info: www.greensboro-nc.gov/

 

Photograph by Ann Vansant

Watch the Birdie

Because of the city’s unique location in the busy Southern migratory flyway, Greensboro has been a designated wild bird sanctuary for many decades, a distinction earned in large part by the efforts of the Piedmont Bird Club, one of the oldest such clubs in the state. Founded by UNCG bird lovers in February 1938, the club runs regular field trips and a host of educational programs throughout the year. PBC members are knowledgeable and super friendly — always welcoming newcomers. Info: www.piedmontbirdclub.org  OH

Almanac

A flower blossoms for its own joy.

— Oscar Wilde

 

May is the daughter of dandelions, queen of the daisies, the giggling maiden of spring.

In a sunny meadow, where the soft grass glitters with morning dew, she is gathering wild violets, singing the blue into each petal.

One handful for candy.

Two handfuls for syrup.

A heaping third for tea.

She moves like water, stirring swallowtails and skippers as she drifts from flower to quivering flower. Constellations of buttercups manifest before her. A choir of bluebirds twitters in her wake.

Her gaze is tender. Her presence full. Everything she touches seems to blush.

The Southern magnolia offers its first fragrant blossom.

The tulip poplar blooms in boundless rapture.

An oxeye daisy sings out: She loves me. She loves me lots. She loves me. She loves me lots.

No flower is forsaken.

A sweep of dandelion brightens beneath her feet, yellow blossoms plump as field mice. There is nothing to do but bask in the playful light of spring.

As the maiden lowers herself onto the lush and golden earth, one hundred songbirds pipe her name. The mockingbird repeats it.

May is here! May is here!

All hail the giggling maiden of spring.

 

Flowers for Mama

Mother’s Day is celebrated on Sunday, May 8. Not that the garden would let you forget. (Read: Bring her flowers.)

Sometimes simple is best. A sprig of dogwood. A vase of bearded iris. A single magnolia blossom.

Or get creative. Wildflower bouquets. Pressed flower notecards. Wild violet jelly. 

If she’s the “roses only” type, you know what to do.

But if your mama’s busy scratching and clawing around in her own garden, perhaps you can glove up and join her.

Prune the hedges if she’ll let you.

Since May is the month to plant summer annuals, plant them together.

In July, when her prismatic zinnias are the crowning glory of the block, she’ll surely be a happy mama still.

 

The Night Sky

According to Smithsonian magazine, two of this year’s most “dazzling celestial events” happen this month: a meteor shower and a lunar eclipse.

If you haven’t yet downloaded an astronomy app, consider doing so before the Eta Aquariids peak on May 5. Why? So you can locate Aquarius, the faint yet richly fabled constellation on the Eastern horizon. If conditions are favorable, and you are, in fact, gazing toward that water-like configuration of stars, then you may catch up to 20 meteors per hour beginning around 4 a.m. What you’re actually seeing? Debris from Halley’s Comet, of course.

A total lunar eclipse will paint the moon blood-red in the wee hours of Monday, May 16. The moon begins entering Earth’s shadow on Sunday, May 15, around 9:30 p.m. Totality occurs around midnight when, for 84 glorious minutes, the moon will appear to glow like a sunset. Dazzling indeed.  OH

Arboreal Awakening

In a city of trees, spring heralds a rhapsody of foliage and hope

By Ross Howell Jr.     Photographs by Mark Wagoner

 

When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. When is the next best time? Now.

— Chinese saying, in The Overstory, a novel by Richard Powers

 

Lately on walks with our rescue dog, Sprinkles, I’ve been thinking about the trees in Fisher Park, the neighborhood where my wife, Mary Leigh, and I live.

Enormous willow oaks, maples, big pecan trees and Southern magnolias line our streets and yards, shading dogwoods, redbuds and crape myrtles. Thick beeches guard the park’s tributary of Buffalo Creek, and tall gums scatter walkways with their prickly, annoying balls.

The trees are serene and magical.

And old.

A quality I share with the trees. We’re approaching the end of our natural lives, becoming unsteady and expensive to maintain.

Being a 2-year-old dog, Sprinkles devotes no attention to the passage of time — the present moment suiting her just fine. She heeds the trees not at all unless a squirrel happens to scramble up one.

But in the 12 years Mary Leigh and I have lived in Fisher Park, thunderstorms have brought down enormous willow oaks, one crashing on the property owner’s car and splintering a neighbor’s redbud tree. Old age has claimed splendid white oaks. Disease has laid low big maples and dogwoods. Ice storms have wreaked havoc, uprooting oaks, gums, beeches, hemlocks and ash trees and shattering magnolias in the park.

Circle of life, right? What can you do?

Turns out, a lot.

Sally Pagliai is the owner of Studio Pagliai Landscape and Garden Design in Greensboro. A native Californian, she holds a degree in landscape architecture from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

Not long ago, she was hired for a project in the Montibello neighborhood, located off Horse Pen Creek Road.

“While there were strict rules about landscaping, the homeowners weren’t abiding by them — some had placed garden gnomes, whirligigs or pink flamingos in front of their houses,” Pagliai says. The homeowners’ association brought her in to review the situation and to make recommendations for rules that would improve neighborhood aesthetics.

It was a hot July day when Pagliai first visited Montibello. As she drove in, she was impressed with how attractively the entrance was landscaped with trees and shrubs.

“But once I got inside the development,” she says, “it was like a moonscape. The landscape was bleached, scorched by the summer heat. There was no canopy of trees.”

Pagliai knew what Montibello needed wasn’t another set of rules. What it needed was a forest.

But how could she convince them?

“When I was growing up in California, we used to visit Carmel,” Pagliai says. “There were all these funky little houses.” She explains that as the town grew, homeowners made the decision to preserve the trees, even ones growing in the middle of some of the streets.

“Now the trees make the place unique, and those same funky little houses today are remarkably expensive,” Pagliai says.

She would make an economic argument to Montibello’s homeowners, demonstrating how trees can increase home values, augmented by information about the value of trees environmentally.

Trees clean the air. They significantly reduce summer temperatures in urban areas and lower electrical bills. They absorb runoff from streets and sidewalks, reducing flooding.

And they’re beautiful.

    

“When you consider their majesty, their sculptural and textural complexity,” Pagliai says, “trees represent the very best of nature.”

Pagliai presented a comprehensive design plan that explained the economic and aesthetic benefits of planting hundreds of trees — evergreen and deciduous — that was reviewed by a neighborhood committee. They approved.

“Montibello ended up spending more than $100,000,” Pagliai says.

Trees were planted in stages at different times of year when various species enjoyed optimal chances of survival. The added benefit? The economic impact on individual homeowners was spread out over time.

Improvement in property values and quality of life in the neighborhood has been profound.

A more recent Pagliai project also involved the planting of hundreds of trees.

“The Healing Gardens at Cone Health Cancer Center are really the work of my heart,” Pagliai says. “I lost both my father and a husband to cancer.”

When her father was being treated at the Stanford Cancer Institute in California, Pagliai could find solace outside the facility in a garden with trees.

“That was real salvation,” Pagliai says. “Trees are so life-giving.”

But at the time Pagliai’s husband, Stefano, was being treated at Cone Cancer Center, there was no garden at all.

“The earth next to the facility was barren and toxic, with rainwater flooding from the parking garage into Buffalo Creek,” she says. Worse, the area was laden with trash and concrete construction debris.

“I’d be in a room with my husband, who was just so sick,” Pagliai continues, “and there was no place outside where I could find any peace.”

Volunteering her own time, Pagliai began sketching out plans for  the Healing Gardens and fund-raising began.

The first garden installation was a barrier of 234 trees planted along Wendover Avenue. The trees muffle traffic sounds from the busy highway and provide a living green wall for the sanctuary just beyond Buffalo Creek.

Within the Healing Gardens, volunteers have planted more than 350 additional trees, including native river birch (Betula nigra), bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), red maple (Acer rubrum) and a variety of wax myrtles and cedars.

At the entrance to the gardens, Pagliai created a row of columnar English oaks (Quercus robur), compact trees that grow narrow and upright — excellent for tight spaces. Entering the garden, the oaks offer separation from the concrete parking lots and sidewalks.

“Trees are some of my best friends,” Pagliai concludes. “They’ve brought me peace. They bring me joy.”

Randal Romie, president of Designature, Landscape Architects ASLA, is a resident of Sunset Hills.

“People forget that the 100-year-old willow oaks falling over in our neighborhood were once the woods that drew people here to build houses,” Romie says. He explains that with more roadways and sidewalks and the increased number of houses, the oaks’ broad root systems no longer have access to the abundance of nutrients available in natural woodlands.

“They’re not going to be 200-year-old trees,” Romie says. “And when we lose them, we’re losing a sense of time.”

But Romie and other Sunset Hills residents now have money in their neighborhood association to buy new trees for homeowners who want them and are willing to pay a small deposit to the fund. So far, the association has supplied residents with some 30 native trees.

North Carolina native trees are a passion for Romie. For him, they’re an essential element in a millennia-old ecosystem of plants and creatures always held in spiritual reverence by Native American cultures.

“We’re part of nature,” Romie says. “When we connect with nature, we feel better. It’s like home.”

In Romie’s experience, people find neighborhoods with a canopy of trees more attractive than neighborhoods without them.

“All we’re doing is getting back to what Greensboro is famous for — neighborhoods like Fisher Park, Lindley Park, where there are trees in every yard,” Romie says. “They’re what make Greensboro green.”

Beyond his efforts in Sunset Hills, Romie has devoted some 30 years of volunteer work to Greensboro Beautiful and has served as co-chair of the urban forestry committee. Urban forestry is a relatively new concept, where trees are seen as critical elements of a healthy urban environment. In some North Carolina cities, urban foresters plant and maintain trees, support appropriate tree selection and forest preservation, and conduct research and education, promoting the benefits trees provide.

Greensboro Beautiful is a nonprofit organization supported by private funds from individuals, corporations and foundations. Its budget assists public gardens like the Greensboro Arboretum and supports a variety of tree-planting and education programs, like NeighborWoods. Through the parks and recreation department, the city of Greensboro provides full-time staff, office space and equipment.

In this public-private partnership, the city field operations department typically digs the holes for tree planting and the planning department provides the expertise of city arborist Judson Clinton to select proper varieties and coordinate with public utilities.

“I may be the planning force behind a project,” says Clinton, who studied forestry, natural resources and silviculture at Purdue University, “but Greensboro Beautiful is really the driving force.”

Greensboro Beautiful provides volunteers, supplies and plant material, while master gardeners help with instruction. As many as 300 volunteers may show up for a planting program — people from all walks and stages of life.

Past special events include an Arbor Day celebration, when Greensboro Beautiful organized more than 250 volunteers to plant 150 trees in the Warnersville neighborhood, the oldest African American community in Greensboro.

After a 2018 tornado cut a path of destruction through the Kings Forest neighborhood and its park, Greensboro Beautiful awarded the area with a 2019 NeighborWoods community tree planting. Volunteers replanted trees throughout the neighborhood and park, supplying additional trees to property owners who requested them.

In 2021 the Audubon Society teamed up with the NeighborWoods program to plant 150 canopy and understory trees in the Friendly Homes neighborhood and surrounding park, and along the Benjamin Parkway Greenway. Many ash trees in the area had been killed by the emerald ash borer, and other canopy trees had suffered dieback due to age and drought.

A new planting initiative was announced March 1, when the United Way of Greater Greensboro opened its centennial celebration by planting a tree at its Yanceyville Street headquarters.

“We’ve partnered with Greensboro Beautiful and Greensboro Housing Authority to plant 100 trees,” says Michael Cottingham, United Way’s vice president, marketing and communications. “In addition to our continued work to help people leave poverty, we hope these trees will serve as a symbolic reminder of the lasting impact we create when we work together to help others.”

Another friend of trees is Elizabeth Link, a manager in the planning department of the city of Greensboro. Among her responsibilities is administering tree planting regulations for new commercial and multifamily residential construction. She holds a landscape architecture degree from North Carolina A&T State University.

She’s also a 25-year resident of Lindley Park.

“We’ve had many old willow oaks die or get knocked down in storms,” Link says.

At her house two old oak trees came down, especially significant because they shaded the house’s southern exposure.

“Our summer electric bills went up,” Link says. And she noticed more standing water after rainfall because the root systems no longer absorbed it.

Link and her husband subsequently replanted trees — a white oak and a red oak. But it will take 30 years for their effects to be felt.

“That’s why it’s so important for neighborhoods to protect their trees,” Link says.

When people ask her about trees, she says she often finds herself telling them what not to do.

“Don’t use herbicides of any kind. Don’t pile up mulch around the trunk of a tree. Don’t let vines climb it. Don’t drive your car over its roots,” Link says.

“But there’s one thing I always tell them,” she adds. “Trees are good.”

She pauses, then repeats, “Trees are good.”

Still, for all their benefits, trees make some homeowners anxious.

“I understand the concern people have with big trees around the house,” says Drew Horne, manager at Guilford Garden Center. “There’s debris and sometimes fallen branches after a storm.”

“But that’s just part of the risk,” Horne continues. He believes that whenever people coalesce with nature, there’s risk.

“When you plant a tree, you’re not planting it for yourself,” Horne says. “It’s like a gift you make to the future.”

One evening when I was doing research for this piece, Sprinkles and I took another walk in Fisher Park. We were emerging from the woods’ edge, and I notice lights in the windows of the Julian Price house.

Movement catches my eye. A red-shouldered hawk settles on the limb of a dogwood just feet away. I stop in my tracks.

The hawk scans the ground, then drops to the forest floor right next to us.

Even Sprinkles stands still.

The hawk cocks its wild, pitiless head and looks right at me.

Then it lifts its wings, snagging with its talons a vole that had been invisible till that moment, and flies off.

With the hawk now in past tense, Sprinkles tugs at her lead, ready to move on.

But I linger for a moment, in a cathedral of trees.  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is a freelance writer. For information on the gardens, activities and volunteer opportunities at Greensboro Beautiful, visit www.greensborobeautiful.org.

 


 

Treasure Trees

In the past, Guilford County established a Treasure Tree Program to recognize the largest, rarest and oldest tree specimens in the area. The purpose was to raise public awareness of these valuable and irreplaceable living things, increase owners’ awareness of their importance and encourage good stewardship. The program was also designed to help protect all trees in our region from indiscriminate removal or damage due to development and urbanization.

Here are examples. You might want to check trees in your own neighborhood. You may discover a treasure of your own.

American Beech (Fagus grandiflora), North Oaks Subdivision, 126 feet tall, crown spread 75 feet, trunk diameter 43 inches.

American Elm (Ulmus americana), Forest Valley Drive, 126 feet tall, crown spread 45 feet, trunk diameter 26.9 inches.

Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), Twin Lakes Park, 98 feet tall, crown spread 26.6 feet, trunk diameter 34.6 inches.

Bottlebush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), Kello Drive, 18 feet tall, crown spread 18 feet, trunk diameter 8.3 inches.

Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica), Twin Lakes Park, height of 87 feet, crown spread 55 feet, trunk diameter 39.5 inches.

Dogwood (Cornus florida), Woodvale Drive, 28 feet tall, crown spread 23 feet, trunk diameter 23 inches.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis), Trosper Road, 40 feet tall, crown spread 9 feet, trunk diameter 9 inches.

Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), Twin Lakes Park, 103 feet tall, crown spread 35.8 feet, trunk diameter 36.8 inches.

Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda), High Meadows Court, 110 feet in height, crown spread 40.3 feet, trunk diameter 40.3 inches.

Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra), North Church Street, 133 feet tall, crown spread 87.5 feet, trunk diameter 55.2 inches.

Pecan (Carya illinoensis), Williams Dairy Road, 94 feet tall, crown spread 112.5 feet, trunk diameter 43.25 inches.

Post Oak (Quercus stellata), Cypress Street, 84 feet tall, crown spread 84.5 feet, trunk diameter 50 inches.

Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), West Friendly Avenue, 82.5 feet tall, crown spread 67.25 feet, trunk diameter 50.4 inches.

Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), Guilford College Road, 148 feet tall, crown spread 71 feet, trunk diameter 63.9 inches. Called “The Underground Railroad Tree,” it may date from the year 1713.

Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica), Twin Lakes Park, 60 feet tall, crown spread 54 feet, trunk diameter 50.4 inches.

White Oak (Quercus alba), North Church Street, 135 in height, crown spread 90.5 feet, trunk diameter 62.5 inches.

Willow Oak (Quercus phellos), Cypress Street, 138 feet tall, crown spread 84 feet, trunk diameter 62.5 inches.

For the complete Treasure Tree list, go to www.greensboro-nc.gov/departments/planning/learn-more-about/trees-and-urban-forestry/treasure-trees-program.

A convenient place near downtown Greensboro to see trees is Green Hill Cemetery. Walking tours are available through Friends of Green Hill Cemetery, a non-profit group that has identified some 700 tree varieties in the cemetery’s 51 acres. According to www.monumentaltrees.com, you’ll come across these big specimens, and more.

Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata), 78 feet tall and more than 85 years old.

Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), more than 50 feet tall.

Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla), estimated to be 32 feet in height.

Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa), height of about 66 feet, trunk diameter of nearly 48 inches.  OH

Tea Leaf Astrologer

Taurus

(April 20 – May 20)

Sometimes you’ve got to know when to fold. This is especially true for those born under the Earth sign of Taurus. But when the cosmos deals you a humdinger — and, this month, that does appear to be the case — raise ’em, baby. (Ahem: This is about your standards.) They say we can only love others as deeply as we love ourselves. On that note, have you ever tried mirror gazing? In the buff? These are rhetorical questions.

Tea leaf “fortunes” for the rest of you:

Gemini (May 21 – June 20)   

Making risotto? Stir frequently. Otherwise, don’t. 

Cancer (June 21 – July 22) 

Hint: raw oysters. 

Leo (July 23 – August 22) 

At a certain point, bending the rules becomes the game itself.

Virgo (August 23 – September 22) 

Shake before opening.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

You’re looking for more depth. How do you feel about wetsuits?

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

Coffee will only get you so far.

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

Don’t mistake peace for boredom. 

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Enough is enough. Read that again.

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

Start by rolling up your sleeves. 

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

Your gut is trying to tell you something. Best to listen.

Aries (March 21 – April 19)   

Make the first move.  OH

Zora Stellanova has been divining with tea leaves since Game of Thrones’ Starbucks cup mishap of 2019. While she’s not exactly a medium, she’s far from average. She lives in the N.C. foothills with her Sphynx cat, Lyla. 

Don’t Try It ’til You’ve Nocced It

Growing your own mushrooms gets a boost in Saxapahaw

By Maria Johnson

Wearing the knit headband and sun-kissed cheeks of an avid outdoorswoman, Jeanne Verrecchio traces her mushroom obsession to the COVID pandemic.

Last summer, she spent some of her down time watching the Netflix documentary Fantastic Fungi.

“I said, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to learn about mushrooms,’” says Verrecchio, her Brooklyn accent underlining her earnestness.

She slipped down the fungal slope quickly. She read up on edible mushrooms. A friend up the street gave her a growing kit for Christmas.

In January, when Verrecchio retired from her job as an oncology nurse at Duke University Medical Center, her colleagues threw her a going-away party in a conference room. They hung paper mushrooms from the ceiling. They gave her an accent pillow covered with a charming mushroom print. They decorated her cake with little plastic mushrooms. They presented her with gold-plated mushroom earrings.

Wait. There’s more.

In February, Verrecchio took a mushroom foraging class led by an expert in Durham.

And now, on a nippy Saturday morning, Verrecchio and 15 others stand in a semicircle in a barnyard at Haw River Mushrooms, in the Alamance County community of Saxapahaw, using battery-powered drills to poke holes in logs perched on sawhorses in front of them.

In a few minutes, the students will begin noccing — short for inoculating and pronounced “knocking” — their logs with cultures that will grow into mushrooms. 

Photograph by Maria Johnson

Prepandemic, more than 200 people a year signed up for Haw River’s noccing classes, which were designed to make participants more fungi friendly.

“We want mushroom gardening to be as common as tomato gardening in North Carolina,” says Laura Stewart, who owns the farm with husband Ches. “Mushrooms grown on logs are about the most laid-back product you can add to your garden. They’re very resilient.”

COVID halted the noccing classes in 2020 and 2021, and the term inoculation took on a different meaning. But earlier this year, as the pandemic subsided in this country, the Stewarts and their employees resumed their noccing events, as well as mushroom foraging on the property.

Participants popped out like shiitakes after a rain.

Stewart attributes the burgeoning interest in mushrooms to several longstanding trends:

A concern about the environment and a push for sustainable agriculture. A growing number of vegetarians in this country. An interest in the medicinal qualities of mushrooms, especially as anticancer agents.

The pandemic helped the fungal cause too.

Fantastic Fungi, the Netflix doc, sparked a wave of interest, she says. And some people started growing mushrooms as a socially distanced hobby. Count 14-year-old Alex McPherson in their number.

“I looked it up during quarantine,” she says. “I was bored, so I thought, ‘Mushrooms. Sure, why not?’”

Her father, Heath, followed her lead. They ordered a growing kit and marveled at the fungi that sprouted in Heath’s office in their north Raleigh home.

“It’s kind of like growing flowers,” says Heath. “There’s an aesthetic to it. The colors, the textures. It helps us to try different foods, too.”

Alex enjoys mushrooms with pasta. “Anything pasta,” she says.

For noccer Adam Dovenitz, who lives in Durham, pizza is a powerful motivator. He once grew blue oyster mushrooms and put them on a pie.

“They were amazing,” says Dovenitz, long a devotee of edible fungi. When he was 10, he experimented with inoculating logs and nearly caught his parents’ home on fire while melting wax to plug the nocc holes.

“I learned you don’t put out a wax fire with water,” Dovenitz says, throwing his hands apart with an explosive “PSHHHH!” to communicate the idea of “wax fire.”

“Now, I actually have good instruction.”

Photograph by Sam Froelich

And how. The Stewarts have been full-time mushroom farmers for five years.

In March 2020, they moved to a 17-acre spread where they expanded their operation to several outbuildings, including an old railroad shipping container, two repurposed truck trailers and a new barn.

Their yield: 30 tons of mushrooms a year.

More than half the haul goes to 10 farmers markets in the Triangle and Triad.

Restaurants get the next biggest slice, about six tons.

The rest goes to subscribers of Community Supported Agriculture.

Eric Dragone and Susan Pizzuti of Carrboro buy the Stewarts’ mushrooms at their local farmers’ market. They’re fond of the lion’s mane variety, which has a flavor similar to crab meat.

“She’s replaced most of the meat in our diets with mushrooms.” says Dragone, nodding proudly to Pizzuti.

Hoping to grow their own fungi, the young couple have signed up for the noccing class, which begins with a tour of the farm.

Stepping around cats, chickens and an Australian shepherd-Labrador retriever mix named Isaac, students learn the basics of mushroom cultivation.

They see how the Stewarts make their own growing medium from locally sourced oak sawdust and soybean hulls. They hear how the Stewarts pasteurize and inoculate the medium with a rainbow of oyster mushrooms, cinnamon caps, black pearls, lion’s mane, shittake and the medicinal reishi.

They step into the earthy air of a trailer and witness how the cultures colonize — in plastic bags on racks made from metal pipes — into masses of white mycelium, the brainlike motherships of mushrooms.

Students then dip their feet into an anti-fungal bath and enter misty grow rooms, where scores of plastic bags have been slit open to reveal the fruit of the mycelium— plump buttons, domes, ruffles and fingers of mushrooms in luscious shades of blue, gray, rust, gold and cream.

“They’re beauuuuutiful,” coos Verrecchio, the former nurse.

Outside, after breaking for a cup of soup made from lemon grass, lion’s mane and coconut milk — “Do you have, like, six more gallons of this soup? It’s incredible,” says Dragone — Laura Stewart preps her charges with a couple of nocc talks.

Photograph by Maria Johnson

The Log Talk: You will select four logs of freshly cut oak, which is the best host for mushrooms. Other types of logs will work, but don’t use dead wood because it’s already growing stuff.

The Spawn Talk: You will receive cups of cultures — mashed mycelium — and an inoculator resembling a big brass syringe to inject the cultures into the log holes. You will have a choice of blue oyster, shiitake and lion’s mane mushrooms, but jab each log with only one variety of mushroom. More than one culture guarantees fungal war.

The pupils get to noccing.

Amber Brothers who runs Elijah’s Farm in the Rougement, hopes to add more mushrooms to the produce she sells at the Black Farmers’ Market in Durham, at another market in Henderson, and — one day, she hopes — at a market-on-wheels that she will drive into poor communities.

“I want to teach low-income kids about sustainability,” she says.

Already, she has converted part of her home into a mushroom growing center.

“My living room is covered in plastic, with vents out the windows,” she says.

Lori and Dan Seiler of Burlington are interested in the marketability of mushrooms as well.

Prepandemic, they enjoyed a special all-mushroom dinner prepared by a chef in Raleigh. When COVID dinged their janitorial business, they warmed to the idea of growing mushrooms as a side hustle on their five-acre place.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we try it?’ We have trees that need to be cut,” says Lori.

To that end, they’re inoculating their logs with shiitake, lion’s mane and blue oyster cultures and daubing the holes with paraffin, while gently shooing a tabby cat who keeps jumping aboard to investigate.

Laura wraps up the class with a final address.

The Care Talk: Don’t let your logs get dirty. Don’t let them dry out. Set them in a shady spot out of the wind. Don’t worry if the paraffin peels off your nocc holes. And don’t worry about the myth that you should seal the ends of the logs, too.

“I think that’s a conspiracy spread by Big Wax,” Laura says with a grin, her blond ponytail protruding from the backside of her trucker hat.

Within a year, she advises, you should see mushrooms growing from your logs. Check them frequently.

“It’s a good experience to go out after a rainy day and realize, ‘Oh, I just made myself a meal,’” she says.

If your nocc is a bust, she counsels, contact the farm. She’ll give you another log.

“I want you to be successful,” says Laura, who, like her crop, is pretty laid back.

“Anything with farming pushes you into more systems thinking,” she says. “You realize, ‘OK, everything is related,’ and if that’s your thinking from the get-go, it makes you a little more empathetic.”  OH


Learn more at hawrivermushrooms.com.

Forgetting Age

Has the age of forgetting just begun?

I’m glad to forget some things but others

I want to hold on to as if they’ve begun,

as if they’re new, yet familiar, like dawn.

Here comes the age of where-has-it-all-gone,

when I wonder what may have been before:

the color of someone’s eyes, someone who

lived nearby, someone whose name I once knew,

the certain way a dark cloud haunts the sky.

But like the cloud, they’re wisps and mist and last

only long enough to become heavy,

to fall into unknowing. Sweet and small.

I grasp at them. I know they will be missed,

as memory, like soft rain, starts to fall.

Paul Jones

Paul Jones is the author of Something Wonderful.

House Of Prayer

High Point restaurateurs Tu and Todd Sen revere the history of their Johnson Street home
By Maria Johnson • Photographs by Amy Freeman

The real estate listing popped up on Tu Sen’s Facebook page around midnight.

She went running to find her husband, Todd, who was minding a backyard fire pit with the couple’s daughter Tiffany Vanhpraseuth and godson Christian Thomas.

The family had just gotten home from working at their restaurant, 98 Asian Bistro in High Point.

“I said, ‘Oh my God, Todd, my dream house is for sale! We have to see it!’” Tu remembers.

Todd knew which house she meant, a wide-set Prairie-style gem that would fit right into Oak Park, Ill., where famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked.

Built in 1910, Tu’s dream house sat squarely in High Point’s Johnson Street Historic District on the eastern edge of downtown. Officially, the place was called the Burnett-McCain House, after the structure’s first two owners.

A century later, whenever Tu and Todd passed the house at the corner of Johnson Street and East Farriss Avenue, Tu would ask Todd to put on the car’s emergency flashers and stop at the curb so she could get out, jab a couple of incense sticks in the corner of the yard, light them and pray to the house, asking permission to live there and take care of the structure some day.

Todd knew that Tu loved the house because it looked Asian, with its simple horizontal lines and deep front porch.

He knew, too, that she thought it would be a good home for the many Buddha statues that she kept in her prayer room, a shrine she created inside a storage shed at their suburban High Point home.

But even in the face of Tu’s excitement about the historic property, Todd was overcome by worries about money — and by an unspoken feeling that people like him and Tu, who came to this country as child refugees from war-torn Southeast Asia in the 1970s, shouldn’t, and couldn’t, live in a big house like that.

“We can’t afford it,” he told her that night. Undaunted, Tu made an appointment to see the house the next morning. After the showing, she called Todd. “We have to make an offer,” she said.

The house was charming and sophisticated, she reported. It was full of modern furniture and — although the owners weren’t Buddhists — it contained several Buddhas already. “I said, ‘No wonder I liked it,’” she recalls.

The owners were asking $350,000. They had three offers already.

Tu — who had a good idea of what she and Todd could afford — wanted to offer $358,990. Cash.

Todd knew how determined his wife could be when she wanted something. Usually, he was happy with the outcome. “OK,” he said. “Do it.”

They made an offer.

A few days later, Tu toured the house again. This time, she took fresh fruit as an offering, spread it on a white sheet in the foyer, lit 10 white candles and had a chat with the house.

“I said, ‘I’m here. You already know me. If you want me to be your next caretaker, choose me. If you feel I’m not the right person, I will accept it.’” Two weeks later, the agent called. The owners had taken their offer.

The Sens moved into their new-old home in November 2019.

Sitting in the front room, on a plush beige sofa that matches the couple’s blond Yorkshire terriers, Bang and Blue, Tu explains why she believes the former owners accepted their offer.

“The house talked to them” she says. Todd chuckles and points out that Tu talked to the house first.

“I’ve been with my wife 29 years and let me tell you,” he says, “I’ve seen miracles around her when she prays.”

Tu nods, adding that she prays for many things: family, friends, her hometown.

By hometown, she means High Point, not the U.S. military base in Laos where she was born 48 years ago. A lot has happened between then and now. “I pray for healing,” Tu says. “For what I went through.”

       

She remembers the sound of helicopter rotors slapping the air. Then a toddler, Tu was strapped to her mother’s chest with a bed sheet. Her mother had one foot in a Black Hawk helicopter and was telling Tu’s father to come on. Because Tu’s father had worked for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in Laos during the Vietnam war, the Americans offered to evacuate the family as Vietnam and neighboring Laos fell to Communist forces. If you stay, they will kill you, her mother told her father.

I’ll be fine, he said. Tu’s mother stepped out of the helicopter. Laotian officials arrested her father and threw him in jail, where he was chained in a dark basement. Tu, her mother and two sisters lived nearby. Her mother cooked and kept house for her husband’s captors. Gradually, they trusted her enough to release her husband. But he wasn’t the same when he got home.“He was broken,” says Tu.

Her mother, who was Thai, decided the family should risk an escape to Thailand. One night, when Tu was about 8, her family and a few others boarded canoes to paddle across the Mekong River to Thailand. Rain lashed the canoes. Thunder rattled their already raw nerves. Lightning strobed, exposing their location to Thai soldiers, who shot at them. “My mom told all of us to lie down,” Tu says. They made it.

A couple of days later, Thai police picked up the group, soaked and traveling on foot. Eventually they were taken to a refugee camp. The family stayed in camps for about four years. Tu remembers room dividers made of newspaper and bamboo. She remembers getting one fish, one bowl of rice and a five-gallon bucket of water every day. She remembers Thai vendors selling apples outside a barbed wire fence.

“I wished I could taste that apple,” she says.

Once her family was cleared for green cards because of her father’s service to the U.S., camp officials asked her mother where they wanted to go. Her mother pointed to a post card of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

“She said it was the land of gold,” Tu says. “My father said the Americans would never leave us. He believed that.”

The family lived in Jersey City, N.J., for several years, then followed their middle daughter, Mary, to Greensboro.

Tu’s parents worked in a mattress factory in Asheboro. Mary worked at a sock factory and grocery store in Greensboro. Tu waited tables in a Chinese restaurant, Empress Garden, in Greensboro.

“I did so well I had people waiting to sit in my section,” she says. “All my customers were elderly. They tipped me really well. They knew I was a single mom.”

Years later, when Mary and her husband, James, opened Thai Chiang Mai, a restaurant in High Point, Tu and her second husband, Todd, joined them in the family business.

Born in Cambodia, Todd also had lived in a Thai refugee camp — though not the same one as Tu — before his family immigrated to South Bend, Indiana. One spring weekend Todd came to a friend’s wedding in Lexington, N.C.

  

His parents saw photos of him wearing shorts in North Carolina while they still wore coats in Indiana.

They saw the red clay soil, which promised a longer growing season for their garden.

They were sold on the South. The family relocated to the Piedmont, worked in furniture factories, and planted a huge garden.

“I think my mom has never bought a vegetable,” Todd jokes. “For the older generation, they grow stuff to connect them to the old country. Myself, I go fishing because that’s what I did when I was younger, in Cambodia, for food.”

His fish-grilling skills came in handy when he and Tu opened their own place, 98 Asian Bistro, in 2015. The upscale restaurant, which occupies part of a former Chevrolet dealership on Main Street in High Point, memorializes the year Tu’s father died, 1998.

Tu and Todd insist on honoring those who have paved the way for them.

  

In their home, they have set aside the master bedroom to venerate the home’s second owner, physician H.W. McCain, whose family lived there more than 40 years. No one sleeps in the king-size bed, which is strewn with photos and write-ups about the home.

Another bedroom is Tu’s prayer room, which twinkles with banks of metallic figures representing both sides of her family: Buddhist and Thai cultures for her mother; Hindu and Indian cultures for her father. Fresh flowers, fruit, candy, bottled water and sweet drinks welcome the spirits. Incense perfumes the air.

A third bedroom serves as a closet for Tu and Todd.

The couple sleep in a modest fourth bedroom. It’s the only room that they have furnished themselves.

    

The home’s former owners, Michael and Patricia Bellocchio, who own a furniture manufacturing company, left behind many sleek pieces — the armless sofas in the front room, the minimalist dining room table and chairs — as well as carved Spanish Mission-style chests, sideboards and armoires that harmonize with Eastern flavors.

A pair of decorative wooden doors — supposedly from an Asian temple — are set into the wall of a professional kitchen that sports a six-burner gas stove, a concrete-and-mahogany topped island, an extra-wide refrigerator and freezer, a double oven and walls textured with stacked quartz stone.

Other than painting the home’s interior walls gold and green, the Sens have done very little updating. They’ve filled in the gaps between furnishings with a bevy of treasures, many of which have been given to them or sold at a discount by friends in the furniture industry.

The faux pink cherry blossoms that fill giant metal vases on either side of the fireplace? A customer ordered them for her daughter’s wedding and gave them to Tu afterward.

The bronze Chinese lions in front of the house? Tu saw them in a High Point store more than 10 years ago. “I said, ‘If you stay here, I’ll come back for you,’” she says. When she returned, the big cats were waiting at a fraction of the original price. She took them home and draped them with red strings of Buddhist prayer beads.

The burbling orb fountain with water slipping down the sides? A gift from the owners of the Phillips Collection, who are Tu’s customers.

The house-warming gift that she wanted the most — an American flag — came from the High Point Chamber of Commerce, which named her Businesswoman of the Year in 2016.

“I always said I wanted to have a piece of America,” says Tu. “Owning this home is a piece of America.”

The house continues to inspire dreamers, Todd says.

“Every once in a while somebody will stop their car in front of this house, get out and take a picture.”  OH

Greensboro’s Johnny Appleseed

The green thumb of Bill Craft

By Cynthia Adams     Photographs by Mark Wagoner 

Bill Craft Park Greensboro NC

Bill Craft, head of Craft Insurance and self-styled nature lover, could have spent his dollars on self-aggrandizing gestures.

But no. Over 81 years, Craft expended resources and muscle making Greensboro better, more colorful and definitely greener.

Wearing old shorts and battered sneakers, Craft took to the creek banks near the family home on Dover Road, rousing a few of his nine children to weed and play, creating a naturalized woodland “creek park.”

He toiled there and at other public spaces for 50 years until the end of his life.

Craft’s headstone at Forest Lawn Cemetery simply reads “Greensboro’s Johnny Appleseed.” Yet, according to a horticultural inventory, Craft planted almost everything but apples in the public spaces he beautified.

He singlehandedly planted and maintained more than 100 species of trees, shrubs and rare plantings in his pet project — a namesake park in Old Irving Park just south of Greensboro Country Club — Bill Craft Park. The “creek park” he created was a perfect backdrop for his father’s labors, says Daniel Craft. “He kind of had a blank slate. . . . Nobody [else] looked after them.” Worn, meandering and unpaved paths seemed perfect for walkers and children at play. Nothing overly manicured.

He invited others to fall in love with the great outdoors, as he had. Adding dollops of color through plantings and taming overgrowth was enough; Craft knew when to step back from the canvas.

Resident Ann Robinson says the idea was “to create a walk in the woods.”

Her sons Will and Patrick Robinson spent hours playing there when young, making forts from culled bamboo and splashing in the creek with their dog, Nipper.

Craft was restless, possessing an unusual amount of energy. As an only child, he inherited his father’s business, dutifully leading it from 1954 until 1996 when his children took over. But he bolted outdoors as often as possible on a dizzying mission: beautifying grounds at St. Francis and Holy Trinity Episcopalian churches, as well as at St. Pius and Brightwood Christian Academy.

He also turned his attentions to Fisher Park, the Greensboro Science Center and Irving Park School.

Bill Craft Park Greensboro NC

Craft even kept a garden for seniors at Evergreens Nursing Center and took them flowers.

After graduating from Carolina, he served in the Coast Guard before marrying Joanne Brantley. They had six sons and three daughters. Craft’s Chevy S-10 pickup’s tag read: “9Younguns”. David still has it.

Daniel recalls being “dragged to parks, to a playground or Scouts” on Saturdays. Craft led Boy Scout Troop 216 for years; all six sons earned their Eagle badge, like their dad.

David says their colorful father, turbocharged with energy, “didn’t like sitting around talking about things.” An understatement.

His favorite expression was, “Okey-doke.”

Robinson, whose family moved to Blair Street 25 years ago, soon encountered Craft’s energy. Despite his thatch of white hair, he carried buckets and buckets of water, tending plants.

“When we first moved to Blair Street,” Robinson remembers, “I ran into Bill in the park — working, planting as usual . . . and I told him that I had two boys who could help out if needed. He kind of nodded and pointed to our house on the corner to say, ‘Is that where you live?’” That Saturday morning, the doorbell rang, “and there was Bill with buckets and shovels. I opened the door and he said, ‘Where are those boys?’” Robinson woke her sons, and they returned exhausted.

   

The Craft boys related.

Equally fond of hiking and biking, Craft volunteered on Greensboro’s network of bike trails, which eventually extended through Lake Daniel, Latham Park and Lake Daniel Greenway, on the Benjamin Parkway.

Indefatigable and upbeat, Craft was “kind of a dreamer,” once driving a few of his children to Morehead City in search of Spanish Moss. He stuffed the station wagon, returning home the same day.

“The moss didn’t make it in our climate,” adds Daniel, “but it got us out of the house.”

Stories about Craft tumble out of family and friends.

After years of his beautification endeavors, the Chamber honored him in 1974. A comical exchange with philanthropist Joe Bryan became his favorite story.

“He got the Dolley Madison award the same night Joe Bryan got an award,” Daniel recalls.

“They both lived in Irving Park — knew each other. Dad started talking to him, and said, ‘I’m getting an award for my park.’ Joe says, ‘I’ve got a park named after me, too. But they don’t make me work in it.’”

The Bill Craft Park grew as colorful as its namesake. Craft’s sons estimate there are easily “l00 azaleas and camelias alone — his favorites.”

   

Daniel mentions a 1990 summer date with his later wife, Kathy. They were cycling toward Greenhill Cemetery and spotted a man working. “I think I said, ‘Oh, s—t,’” he spluttered.

“Kathy said, ‘What?’ ’’ Daniel recognized the unmistakably tan, wiry figure of his father.

“There he is, tennis shoes, no shirt, and a black Speedo bathing suit, planting a tree! That’s how she met him.”

David groans at the Speedo story, saying, “Dad was just living. Didn’t care about judgment . . . I thought he was a kind of a nut when I was a teenager.”

But they admired how their father juggled a vocation and fatherhood with many interests, never missing dinners. He watched no television, and read with the same fever that he brought to gardening. His sons say he took pleasure “in very basic things.”

Sons No. 9 (Daniel) and No. 8 (David) remained in Greensboro as adult siblings scattered.

If there is an apple tree, seems the Craft sons did not fall far from it. Daniel also likes to do his own thing. “I don’t need validation for what I do.”

He points out that David has been instrumental in building trails and creating the Haw River State Park. David points out Daniel’s devotion to the Bill Craft Park auxiliary.

Ann and Russ Robinson were also among original members. “The auxiliary started after Mr. Craft passed away . . . We were in the group that got it going with the Crafts and other neighbors — many of whom were friends and contemporaries of Bill’s,” she recalls.

A dozen or so auxiliary members meet twice annually at the Bill Craft Park sign, sharing donuts and coffee the Robinsons bring before weeding, pruning and clearing.

Years ago, Styers helped with an inventory that totaled 117 plantings. The inventory documented varieties of dogwoods, hollies, birches, buckeyes, elm, redwood, magnolias, cherries and fruit trees, plus nut trees, hemlock, pines, persimmon, sweet gum, oaks, spruces, cedars, maples, cypress, and even unusual palms, roses, jasmine, lilac and anise.

   

Shelton Styers documents images on the Bill Craft Park Auxiliary Facebook page (www.facebook.com/groups/164265200263243/).

On workdays, stories emerge about the man who inspired it all.

“We control the invasives. Prune some things here and there,” Daniel says. “One of Dad’s biggest regrets was planting bamboo there.” He tackles the dreaded bamboo first.

For the Robinsons, the park became important to their sense of community. “Our most recent park project has been very fun,” says Ann. “There was a really big Ash tree that came down in front of our house in the park. It was during COVID. I’d been involved in a fundraiser in the mountains that involved making wood-turned bowls from a tree that came down and thought we could perhaps do the same for Craft Park.”

Woodworker, Rick Andrews made wooden bowls and ornaments that were sold last year.

“We even had one bowl that we gave to Rip Bernhardt — an old friend of Bill’s who, although he lives at WellSpring now, always tries to come at least for the coffee before the clean-up and visit. He was very touched by the bowl we gave him and to have a ‘piece of the park’ and asked me to take his picture on the stump of the old Ash tree to send to his friends.”

David adds, “One of his buddies, probably 20 years ago, said, one of your dad’s greatest skills was he can talk to the janitor of the company and the CEO of the company and make them feel equally important.”

In 1991, the Greensboro Interclub Council recognized Craft’s outstanding civic leadership: a Jaycee, and a Red Cross and Kiwanis member, he served on most all the civic organizations. He joined nearly every outdoor group, including the Piedmont Appalachian Trail Hikers, the Guilford Wildlife Club and more.

David muses. “Dad used to say that being in the insurance business made him a good living and enabled him to do what he wanted to do . . . but if he could have been something else, he would have been a college professor.”

No doubt, a botanist.  OH

   


Adopt a Park  Adopting a park helps keep public parks beautiful. Contact Alex Alexandra Zaleski, the city’s volunteer coordinator, at (336)–373–7507.

Flower Power

All the yard’s a stage in Shellie Ritzman’s blooming world

By Maria Johnson

Photographs by Amy Freeman

Shellie Ritzman is having a vision.

Right here, right now, standing in the dirt beside the brand new, tin-roofed workshop in her backyard in Kernersville.

She’s waving her hands. Her voice and her body are animated.

She can see the future. She points to it.

See? There’s a bright floral design — one she has painted — on the exterior wall of the workshop.

Below the design, on the ground, there’s a bench. A long bench.

The bench is filled with Boho pillows.

“You can seat probably six, seven, eight people,” she says.

Her customers will mug for pictures there, she says. Young people, especially. They want pictures to post on social media to show people their memories before they’re even memories. That’s why Ritzman has painted cheerful background graphics on other walls around the property.

But back to the vision.

Gravel will go here, Ritzman says, brushing broad strokes with her palms to the ground.

Her hands fly up, and she draws lines overhead.

Bistro lights will go here.

Anchored by a tall post here.

And, of course, she says, her fingers playing arpeggios in the air, the space will be surrounded by gorgeous flowers and plants.

“There’s so much to do,” she says, turning on the heels of her sporty flip-flops.

Somewhere, there’s a stopwatch ticking, and Ritzman — who goes by Shellie Watkins Ritzman professionally — hears it loud and clear.

“I’m always thinking of stuff,” she says. “Always.”

Her feat isn’t so much the thinking, though.

It’s the doing.

The actions that make her vision real.

In the last two years, this semiretired executive assistant has created, from thin air and good dirt and more than a little sweat, My Garden Blooms, a homespun enterprise that wraps a cut-flower business — rooted in a backyard labyrinth of raised beds— around cozy staging areas where area artists and craftspeople conduct flower-friendly events for paying customers.

For example, later this month Ritzman will host a class called Board and Bloom Bar. For 65 bucks a head, a dozen people will gather in the breezy outdoor room that juts from the back of her ranch-style house to learn how to make a charcuterie board, the 21st-century term for a spread of meat, cheese, nuts and other antipasto.

Whitney Chaney, owner of Gather & Graze Co. in Winston-Salem, will lead the session. Participants will sip botanical teas and lemonades and nibble from their own charcuterie cups. At the end, students will make a small bouquet from a selection of cut flowers to take home.

Next month, Kiley Duncan, who owns Tea + Toast, another Winston-Salem business, will show people how to make cocktails and mocktails using loose-leaf teas and botanicals. Customers will, of course, make themselves a parting bouquet. They’ll also have a chance to buy some of Kiley’s handcrafted bitters and elixirs.

Ritzman’s calendar stretches on, year-round, with tutorials on candle pouring, rock painting, flower pressing, wreath making and dried-flower arranging.

The events are good for her collaborators and for her. They raise the visibility of Ritzman’s property — which is available for private events, too — and they spotlight her primary stream of income, subscriptions to cut-flower bouquets that Ritzman wraps in brown paper and delivers weekly to pick-up points near her subscribers.

At the moment, her distributors are Cake and All Things Yummy in Kernersville and Lavender and Honey Kitchen in Winston-Salem.

“Hopefully they’ll buy a cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee while they’re in there,” Ritzman says. “I don’t know what it is about flowers and bakeries.”

Ritzman sees symbiotic relationships everywhere, especially in her second profession. Her pesticide-free flowers attract pollinators — birds, bees, butterflies and the like — which benefit the family farms that surround her. She stands in her driveway and points in three directions.

“100-year-old farm, 100-year-old farm, 100-year-old farm,” she says.

Her farmer-neighbors haven’t necessarily grown the same crops for a century. One neighbor has swapped tobacco for hemp. The point is, Ritzman sees herself as a part of the region’s agricultural tradition.

It just so happens that her boutique farm covers half an acre and that she’s wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses, a yoga studio T-shirt and cropped joggers with a snakeskin print.

“Can you tell I’m an old soul?” she asks.

She means it.

Ever since she was a girl in Amarillo, Texas — back when her mom played “tea party” with her and served graham crackers with chocolate frosting — her goal was to own a tearoom.

Then came life.

And two sons.

And the need to work as a single mom.

Ritzman typed. She took shorthand at 110 words a minute — almost as fast as most people talk.

Her fingers flew over a 10-key calculator.

“I learned real quick to say, ‘I’m finished. Is there anything else to do?’ I had a good work ethic, I guess,” she says.

She mastered bookkeeping, then spreadsheets. She transplanted her family and worked for various bosses — and their wives.

“When they said, ‘Oh, Shellie, can you design a garden club invitation?’ my little artsy self was on it,” she says.

She came by her little artsy self honestly. Her father had been a Marine, then an overall-wearing gas refinery worker, then, in a somewhat surprising turn, a self-employed commercial artist who took a mail-order course to learn to draw for profit.

He set up his own shop and designed business cards, letterhead and logos.

He painted watercolors.

He designed a commemorative coin celebrating Evel Knievel’s motorcycle jump over the Snake River at Twin Falls, Idaho, in 1974.

“The Texas Cattlemen’s Association still uses my dad’s logo,” Ritzman says.

She fed her own simmering talent with nature.

In her time off, she tended flowers in her yard — veggies never held much appeal for her — and read Victoria magazine, losing herself in slick pages filled with bowers of blossoms, smartly set garden tables and handicrafts fashioned by clever women.

Sound familiar?

When her sons graduated from college, and her boss sold his family’s Winston-Salem company, Ritzman saw blocks of time open up before her.

She bought a book called Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest and Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms.

She followed up by taking Floret’s six-week class online.

“Their concept is, you can grow a lot of flowers in a small space,” she says.

She had the space, reclaimed from her boys’ soccer balls and go-carts.

She had the smarts.

She had the shovels.

She dug in. With the help of her second husband, Nevin Ritzman, a retired firefighter, she plopped raised beds made of corrugated metal atop islands of cypress mulch and started planting in 2018.

She made a lot of mistakes.

She buried bulbs, plugs and seeds at the wrong time of year.

She covered the beds with cloth that was too thin and shredded easily when it was removed and replaced for frost.

She misfired with flora that frowned on the climate along Cherry Vale Drive.

She tinkered until she found what worked best.

Peonies

Sweet William

Tulips

Mums

Gladiolas

Dahlias

Zinnias

Snapdragons

Sunflowers

Yarrow

and more . . .

When she hit a snag, she got advice from a supportive online community.

“I follow probably 2,000 flower farmers,” she says. “It’s not a competitive community. It’s a collective community.”

She saved what she learned in her own databases.

“People say, ‘How do you manage it?’ I say, ‘It’s a skill set: Spreadsheets out the wazoo.’ ”

In 2020, she started delivering her prepaid subscription bouquets, the only business model that made sense to her.

“I’m not go gonna sit at a farmers’ market somewhere, and nobody buys my flowers, and then I take them home, and they die,” she says.

She opened her yard for the first class later the same year. COVID delayed the startup. People still came. Some wore masks, some didn’t. Ritzman left it up to them.

Most customers felt safer knowing that the classroom was an outdoor room, essentially a covered patio anchored by a fireplace, stirred by a ceiling fan, and decorated with hanging light balls.

Last year, the Ritzmans bought a slice of land next to their yard. They colonized it with more raised beds and a heated and cooled workshop that seats 12 people — the max for events— in all kinds of weather.

Calling it a workshop is an understatement.

“I thought, ‘OK, people are going to be dining out here. It needs to be froufrou,’” she says.

Mission accomplished. Smelling of paint and sawn lumber, swaddled in creamy fabrics, and floored with gray vinyl planks, the 14-by-28-foot space (which inspired the vision described at the beginning of this story) features a long, custom-built, bar-height table centered under an elegant light fixture.

A wallpaper mural, reminiscent of a Dutch still-life painting, reminds viewers that “In Joy or Sadness, Flowers Are Our Constant Friends.”

Apothecary jars parade dried petals of marigolds, peonies, roses and lavender.

Event participants can buy floral bookmarks, candles and other what-nots.

Ritzman will use the workshop for classes, bouquet assembly and private events, should someone want to rent it.

Her Victorian-style greenhouse also is available.

“You know the custom Boho picnic people?” she says. “If they want to offer somewhere to do a picnic, here it is.”

The same offer applies to the green outbuilding she calls the flower shed, which she uses chiefly as a photo studio for her wares.

“If someone calls and says, ‘Hey, can I have an intimate dinner out there with my girlfriend?’ sure, we’ll fix you up.”

Already, she makes the colorful grounds available, by the hour, for photography and video sessions.

Most visitors, though, come for the classes.

“Once they get here, they’re like, ‘OK, I get it. It’s a place to come play with flowers,’” Ritzman, 62, says.

Her customers are overwhelmingly women.

“You’ll have the sassy girls, all dressed up with their girlfriend groups. We had a group of homeschooled girls. We get a lot of sister groups, a lot of mother-daughter groups,” she says.

Recently, the first male student signed up to take a two-hour charcuterie class with his wife.

“I told my husband, ‘You have to be here so he won’t be intimidated,’” she says.

Regardless of gender, Ritzman believes, her customers are hungry for beauty and company. As the pandemic wanes, they’re emerging like the lime green knuckles of seedlings, testing the environment to see if it’s safe to bloom.

“Last year, we did really well, but this year we’re selling out quicker,” she says. “People are ready to get out.”  OH

Learn more about Ritzman’s business at her website, mygardenblooms.net or on her Instagram page, @mygardenblooms.

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. She can be reached at ohenrymaria@gmail.com.

Against the Grain

The Remarkable Life and Legacy of Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color Thomas Day

By Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll

In the furniture and woodwork he crafted for a region’s elite, free Black Thomas Day (1801-1861) combined his cabinetmaking talents with his personal interpretations of fashionable styles to create a distinctive woodworking idiom unique to the mid-nineteenth century Dan River region of North Carolina and Virginia. His remarkable legacy of furniture and architectural woodwork reveals a familiarity with popular pattern books, mastery of furniture-making techniques, incorporation of emerging technology, and expression of a personal aesthetic that elevates him beyond the role of a craftsman to that of an artist. With his great artistic autonomy, Day is one of a few free people of color to leave behind a substantial body of work, one that includes more than 200 pieces of furniture as well as interior woodwork in more than eighty houses.

Born in Virginia to mixed-race parents, Thomas learned the woodworking trade from his father, John Day. When Thomas was a teen, the family migrated from Virginia to North Carolina, eventually settling in Warren County. In 1821, Thomas left his father’s cabinetmaking shop to set up his own shop in Hillsborough. Just two years later he joined his older brother John’s shop in the bustling town of Milton where access to the Dan River and two railroad lines generated a thriving community of artisans and merchants. Although John subsequently left for Liberia to become a Baptist missionary, Thomas remained in Milton where he continued to build his cabinetmaking business, purchasing property in 1827 and establishing his reputation as an artisan. In 1830, Day married Aquilla Wilson, a free Black from Virginia, but she could not join him because an 1826 law prohibited free people of color from migrating to North Carolina. In an unusual response that speaks to Day’s importance within the community, sixty-one prominent white men in Milton and Caswell County successfully petitioned the General Assembly to permit Aquilla to move to North Carolina. Romulus Saunders, the state’s attorney general, endorsed the petition adding:

I have known Thomas Day (in whose behalf the within petition is addressed) for several years past and I am free to say, that I consider him a free man of color, of very fair character — an excellent mechanic, industrious, honest and sober in his habits and in the event of any disturbance amongst the Blacks, I should rely with confidence upon a disclosure from him as he is the owner of slaves as well as of real estate. His case may in my opinion, with safety be made an exception to the general rule which policy at this time seems to demand.

Rocking chair. Made by Thomas Day, ca. 1850. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, pine (upholstery not original).

The petition was granted in late 1830, and Aquilla joined Thomas in Milton. During the decade that followed their household grew to include three children and eight enslaved people. Day was a husband, father, church-going Christian, and respected member of the community. He was also a gifted artisan and a clever businessman. As his clientele expanded and his business grew, he purchased more properties in Milton, eventually acquiring the prominent Union Tavern on Main Street to serve as his shop and residence.

Union Tavern/Thomas Day House, Caswell County, NC, ca. 1818. Jim Lamb , Capital City Camera Club, photographer. Courtesy of Preservation North Carolina.

Day benefitted from the economic boom-era in the Dan River region that sprang from the 1839 discovery of a process for curing tobacco with heat creating vivid yellow “Brightleaf” tobacco. As the wealth of white planters soared, Day was in the right place at the right time, ready to accommodate their aspirations for refinement and gentility. Many chose Day to express their status through his interpretations of the fashionable Grecian style of furniture that paralleled the emerging Greek Revival architectural style. A savvy entrepreneur, Day capitalized on the planters’ social network to establish the largest cabinetmaker’s shop in the state by 1850 — a shop with a diverse workforce of enslaved men, white and mulatto journeymen, and apprentices.

His furniture and woodwork were primarily crafted for the homes of wealthy planters and middle-class merchants, including such prominent citizens as physician and planter John T. Garland, attorneys Bartlett Yancey and Romulus Saunders, merchant John Wilson, and planters William H. Long, William H. Holderness, and Thomas M. McGehee. In addition, Day also received some institutional commissions, including furnishings for the Dialectic and Philanthropic Society Debating Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also fabricated the pews for the Milton Presbyterian Church where he and Aquilla were respected members.

Day’s early furniture reflects a familiarity with popular pattern books illustrating classically inspired pieces he skillfully replicated. Day was also quick to incorporate the emerging stylistic trends appearing on the national scene, including French, cottage, and Gothic influences. By the 1840s he adopted a more idiosyncratic design aesthetic that distinguished his work from his contemporaries and from the pattern books and broadside posters of the period. Day fabricated much of his furniture from imported mahogany, or he employed mahogany veneers over secondary woods. His repertoire included all the pieces needed to accommodate a genteel lifestyle, and his embrace of technological innovations such as a six-horsepower steam engine dramatically enhanced his productivity. Between his steam-powered shop equipment and large workforce, Day could rapidly produce orders even as large as Governor David Settle Reid’s 1855 request for forty-seven pieces of furniture.

1850-1860 Thomas Day made bureau/chest of drawers. Originally owned and used by Gov. David Settle Reid and his wife, Henrietta Settle Reid at their plantation home in Rockingham county, NC.

Day’s custom-made cabinetry and furniture exhibit a powerful energy and a vocabulary of individualized motifs that define both form and detail. While his designs adhered to the principles of symmetry and balance, and utilized classical details, Day pushed beyond standard conventions with bold three-dimensionality, serpentine curves and exuberant ornamentation. The fluidity of his forms suggests a sense of motion that by contrast made the work of his counterparts appear staid. The popular S-shaped scroll motif is incorporated into many of his pieces such as the rocking chair arms and the mirror brackets of his open pillar bureaus. Day lightens the massiveness of Caleb Richmond’s sideboard with S-shaped pillars terminating at the base in scrolled feet, and he embellishes the mirrored gallery back with a pair of whimsical S-scrolls set on the diagonal.

Day often detailed his side chairs and rocking chairs as well as other pieces with ornamentation composed of scroll shapes, ogee and reverse ogee forms, and foliage motifs. While such shapes are certainly not unique to Day, he applies them with more vitality and three-dimensionality than his peers. In particular, Day’s distinctive whatnots with pierced galleries illustrate his use of the jigsaw to create positive and negative shapes. Still balanced and symmetrical, these playful serpentine shapes convey motion and whimsy as do the S-shaped scrolls that support each of the shelves.

Thomas Day Whatnot Shelf, frontal view. Owned by Margaret Walker Brunson Hill, as of Oct. 2021.

The unique, signature lounge is the furniture form most closely identified with Thomas Day. It evolved from an upholstered lounge form popular in the early 1800s that incorporated a low back at one end. Day transforms this earlier model by suspending a slender backboard between arching rear pillars so it appears to float effortlessly across the length of the lounge and creates a complementary negative space in the open back below. Likewise, the side arm rails of the lounge mirror their shapes in both positive and negative forms.

Like his furniture, the distinct and innovative architectural woodwork of cabinetmaker Thomas Day emerged from a specific context of race and place as planters in the 1840s and 1850s expressed their gentility through new boom-era Greek Revival houses and front additions to earlier homes in the Dan River region. More than eighty houses constructed or expanded over a quarter century radiate out from Day’s shop in Milton on either side of the Dan River, revealing the volume and scope of his work. Six intact North Carolina houses illustrate Day’s fully articulated woodwork ensembles of the mid-1800s. Two were built as additions to older houses: the 1856 front section of the Bartlett Yancey House and the ca. 1855 side addition to Longwood (lost to fire in 2013). The other four properties are large Greek Revival period houses: the Holderness House (ca. 1851), the Friou-Hurdle House (1858), the Richmond House (ca. 1850), and the Bass House (ca. 1855). In the next decade, Day embraced the emerging Italiante style with lively sawnwork crafted for the exterior and interior of the Garland-Buford House ( ca. 1860).

Commissions from wealthy planters provided a springboard for Day to create his own artistic signature writ large through architectural compositions. Using staircases, mantels, niches, corner blocks, baseboards, and casings as his palette to sculpt interior spaces, Day developed a fluid, exuberant, idiosyncratic interpretation of the Greek Revival style adopted throughout the Dan River region — all the while operating within the legal and social systems that constrained free Blacks at the time.

Day brought the vivacity of the curving line to his woodwork in innovative ways that continue to amaze and delight. In his entrance halls, bold and varied S-shaped newel posts with tightly coiled spirals and sinuous curves spring from the handrails, all in sharp contrast to the straightforward turned newel posts in most houses of the era. Many of these houses typically have turned newel posts or the more traditional circular ring of balusters supporting a horizontal spiral that terminates the handrail. In contrast, Day rotated the relatively serene horizontal spiral 90 degrees and enlarged the vertical spiral to form the entire newel, conveying a sense of energy and motion that extends the movement of the ramped handrail into the entry hall. Day’s signature newel posts proclaimed the owner’s social status to all who entered.

Complementing his newel posts, curvaceous stair brackets at the end of the treads display fluid-lined variations on standard patterns. While most Greek Revival staircases incorporate decorative stair brackets, only Day’s utilized coordinated motifs to reinforce the S-shaped newel post statements, such as those he crafted for the Glass-Dameron House and Hunt House staircases.

Day’s mantels, the focal point of many a planter’s parlor, invigorated standard Greek Revival idioms with robust serpentine mantel friezes to create a sense of movement unlike the static paneled friezes of their counterparts. As seen in the Holderness House parlor, Day reinforced the hierarchy of the parlor as the most formal interior space by flanking the mantel with arched niches framed by deeply fluted moldings. Likewise, around door and window openings, Day installed bold casings animated by the shifting patterns of light and shadow on their deeply fluted surfaces. The undulating forms and sharply cut sawnwork characteristic of Day’s interiors play upon the tension between positive and negative space.

Like his furniture designs, Day’s architectural woodwork grew out of the framework of classical architecture, respecting formality, symmetry and hierarchy. To his interiors, Day brought fluidity and movement as he abstracted, distorted, rotated, intensified and distilled to transform that vocabulary. Day skillfully maximized and celebrated the fluidity of form as someone who knew the rules and understood how to break them.

The remarkable design aesthetic of his furniture and architectural woodwork speaks to us of the complexity of the life and work of Thomas Day — an entrepreneurial free person of color who crafted a remarkable legacy equally complex in its style and expression. His amazing tangible body of work continues to astound and inspire far beyond the Dan River region. Day’s work also reveals the enduring power and innovative evolution of his appealing aesthetic, an aesthetic ironically empowered by the most powerful and wealthy white citizens of his time and place. 

To Learn More

If you are interested in knowing more about Thomas Day, check out Blandwood Estate current exhibit, “New Perspectives on Thomas Day — Pairing Furniture by North Carolina’s Free Black Master Craftsman With Contemporary Pieces From Governor Morehead’s Blandwood,” April 1 through Sept. 30. The exhibit will generate conversations about the acclaimed free Black cabinetmaker and artisan. Displayed with Day’s furniture are pieces once owned by Gov. John Motley Morehead. According to Blandwood, the show also examines Day’s furniture in period rooms and “introduces new approaches to understanding the work of this master craftsman as a successful Black entrepreneur operating within elite white social circles.”

“This special presentation of Day’s furniture acknowledges his role in American history and speaks for the legacy that people of color gave Blandwood,” says Benjamin Briggs, executive director of Preservation Greensboro. “This exhibit is dedicated to a more equitable approach to understanding the experiences of these individuals who have been overlooked in the past.”

A National Historic Landmark, Blandwood’s mission as a traditional house museum is to interpret historical narratives related to North Carolina history, architecture and the decorative arts. The exhibit’s mission is to expand the traditional narratives around race, gender and class in mid-19th century North Carolina during the mid-19th century.

The Day exhibit is open from April 1 through Sept. 30, Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. and Sundays 
2 p.m. – 5 p.m., with the exception of major national holidays. The last tour begins one hour prior to closing. Tickets are $8 at the door. 
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Reprinted with permission from Preservation Greensboro. Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll is a preservation architect and a Professor Emerita at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.