Vince Dooley's Garden
University of Georgia's famed football coach is passionate about two things: football and gardening. In our Q & A, he talks about his biggest gardening challenge: "Trying to keep it up as I acquire more and more space and more plants. My mother used to say, 'Housework is never done.' The same can be said for gardening."
You might know Vince Dooley better as a football coach than as a gardener, but Dooley happens to be passionate about both football and plants.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, Dooley served as the head football coach for the University of Georgia from 1964 to 1988 and as the athletic director for the university from 1979 to 2004. Dooley was the most succesful coach in Bulldog history, being only the ninth coach in NCAA Division I history to win more than 200 games. The Bulldogs won the 1980 national championships and six SEC championships under Dooley's lead.
Here, the celebrated former University of Georgia football coach opens up about the inspiration behind his latest book, Vince Dooley's Garden, and his endless quest to collect one of every plant, as well as showing off his garden.
You’ve said that your love of gardening grew out of a course you audited, while coaching at the University of Georgia. Was there a specific moment when you knew gardening was more than just a passing curiosity?
The great thing about living around the university is that if you’ve got a curiosity about anything, you can satisfy it. I have always traditionally audited courses about subjects in which I’m interested, and I’ve always been interested in trees and plants, so I thought I’d take one horticulture course and be done with it. Before I knew it, I had been bitten by the bug for which there is no cure.
That was about 14 years ago, and I still love it. Before then, I had absolutely no idea about gardening. I had no background. In fact, I didn’t know many plants’ common names, so as a result of that course, I learned many botanical names before I learned the common names. Once you start to learn, however, you want to plant. Then you want to garden, and as I mentioned in the book, my first mentor in the garden was a guy named Henry, who taught me a lot of the fundamentals. Then I developed my first personal philosophy, which is to get one of every plant. It’s an impossible task, but I’m still trying.
What’s the first thing you ever planted?
I remember Dr. Allan Armitage talking about a flag iris in class, and he said, “If you can’t grow this, forget about it. You can’t grow anything.” I figured I’d better plant something I felt confident about. Flag iris will thrive anywhere, so that was probably truly the first thing I planted.
What’s your planting strategy and where do you find inspiration?
I’ve got a garden for all seasons. I like variety and plants that will bloom and do their thing at different times of the year. That way, I always have something going on in the garden.
There’s beauty in flowers. There’s beauty in fragrance. There’s beauty in fruit. Viburnums, for instance, have great fruit, as do some of the hollys. Tea viburnum has these drooping great clusters of red fruit. There’s also beauty in the bark of trees like Acer griseum. Crape myrtles, particularly the Natchez, have bark that provides winter interest.
Then, again, I’m always looking to add plants and studying the history of plants and gardening. I have an endless interest in newly introduced plants that are being hybridized, too; working with Dr. Michael Dirr gives me an advantage on that because plant introduction is his greatest satisfaction.
Do you lean more toward perennials or annuals?
I really enjoy wooded plants and shrubs, especially local Southern varieties. Perennials like peonies and dahlias, in their respective seasons, are some of the most beautiful flowers. I love them. I also enjoy daphne. I love plants with fragrance.
Let me tell you a story about daphne. They can be difficult to grow because they don’t like wet feet, so you have to be careful of them—that’s what I was told, anyway—but mine thrived when I first planted them, years ago. I gained a lot confidence with the daphne early on. But then two years after that, we had to move the daphne to a new location, under a flowering dogwood tree. Well, everything was fine until that old dogwood, which had always been flourishing, finally died. Within four months, the daphne died, too. Why? Well, it turned out that the dogwood had been absorbing all of that moisture that the daphne doesn’t like. That was a real world gardening education for me. Since then, I’ve learned that experience truly is the best teacher.
What’s your latest acquisition?
I like Dr. Dirr’s Endless Summer series of hydrangeas because I saw him develop it from beginning to end. It's an incredible re-blooming hydrangea he discovered up in Minneapolis. From the first, original Endless Summer variety, he developed Blushing Bride. Another one is Twist-n-Shout, a pink, re-blooming lace-cap hydrangea that’s a cross between Lady in Red and Penny Mac.
Then, there’s Pinky Winky, a pink-and-white variety of hydrangea, and Phantom, [another hydrangea] which has these huge blooms. There’s really endless varieties of Hydrangea paniculata, so there’s been a rebirth of interest in them. I enjoy trying to acquire them all.
In your opinion, is it essential for people to have a design for their garden or is it just as fun to go rogue?
Depends upon whom you listen to. Part of it is having a plan, but part of the fun is just grabbing a shovel and finding a spot. Sometimes in finding a spot, even with a plan, you end up having to move a plant. That’s something I learned early on, and I have moved a lot of plants. Henry once told me, “If a plant ain’t happy, move him.”
How much personal time do you spend gardening?
If I’m home, I’m in the garden. I’ve typically had one person to help me in the garden. A student named Ryan helped me for about five years. I have an area called “Ryan’s Garden.” But I enjoy being active in my garden. I think that’s important, rather than having a team of workers out there just doing it without me.
Do you talk to your plants?
Every once in awhile I find myself talking to them. Sure do.
Do any of your four children share your passion for horticulture?
I’ve got a son who shows some potential. He likes to work in the yard. I’m trying to pick out a grandson or two to pass it on to, and there are a couple who show some potential. But, you know, they’ve got to meet the qualifications. They have to show an interest and want to do it. If they do, they may inherit my plants.
Of all the gardens you’ve visited, whose do you most admire?
I really like the Missouri Botanical Garden. There are so many plants, it’s well-designed, and you can get around easily. But there are a lot of really beautiful botanical gardens out there—somewhere around 1000, I think. I’ve seen about 400, so I’ve got about 600 more to go.
What advice would you give beginning gardeners?
My book should be an inspiration to anyone who wants to be a gardener because if I can be a gardener, anybody can. And if I can write a book on it, anybody can. Like anything, there will be setbacks, but you gain confidence as you go along.
You have a hydrangea and a rose variety named after you. What does it feel like to be in the company of such fabled personalities as Paul McCartney, Amelia Earhart, and Betty White?
[Laughing.] Well, I think it’s nice. Really nice.
About the author: Jessica Mischner blogs at Southern on the Inside.