Just a few miles outside the historic town of Hillsborough, North Carolina, at Chat-wood, an 1806 National Register Federal-period residence, a series of complex and multifaceted English-style gardens burst with color and hidden gems, including an extensive collection of heritage roses. Chatwood is the home of authors Frances and Ed Mayes, who are no strangers to old homes. Their house in Cortona, Italy, was made famous in both the book and film Under the Tuscan Sun.
The Mayeses wanted to live part-time in the South (Frances is from south Georgia), and 5 years ago they decided to move to North Carolina and buy an old house. "We couldn't find one, so we bought another house, and just as we settled in, Chatwood was for sale. We're fools for houses. So we bought it. That was about 3 years ago."
The Eno River runs through the 30-acre property and was what attracted Frances to the place. "I like everything about Southern rivers: the smell–both fecund and fresh–the turtles flopping off logs, the wild laurel and azaleas along the banks, the water that's clear but still brown from tannin, the sandy bottom where sometimes an arrowhead surfaces, and also the Huck Finn idea that rivers symbolize freedom."
The gardens, too, were an attraction. As we walk through, Frances explains that of the 30 acres, 6 are cultivated gardens started in the 1950s by Helen Watkins, Chatwood's owner at that time, who built a brick three-part walled rose garden in the style of Colonial Williamsburg and planted it with an astonishing variety of old roses. "Some she found on abandoned house sites, some in cemeteries, some were given to her, but mostly she loved the Bourbon roses," Frances says.
"Many of the originals have disappeared by now and some are limping along. But a hundred or so varieties still populate her rose garden. I'm adding back some of the lost ones," says Frances. "I find old tags still attached to a little stump and make out the name. The back part of the garden is filled with giant camellias and azaleas, also planted by Mrs. Watkins. There's also a butterfly garden and lots of perennial beds."
Frances is working to reduce the upkeep but maintain the sense of "rooms." She's planted pear, cherry, crabapple, peach, and heritage apple trees and notes how odd it was that with all the abundance, there were no fruit trees in the garden. Alternately ambitious and overwhelmed by the garden, she dreams about it a lot. Luckily, everyone in the family, including her daughter and grandson, loves to cook, which makes the vegetable garden where she and Ed grow everything organically, even gourds, her favorite place. "The gourds tend to roam all over the garden. Last year, raccoons climbed the fence and devoured all the corn just as it ripened." The Mayeses grow 'Scuppernong' grapes and masses of zinnias among the vegetables. They dry red peppers on strings and make gallons of pesto to freeze. "To me," says Frances, "the joy of picking dinner is among life's great pleasures."
The same is true in Italy, where their garden produces plentiful crops of herbs and vegetables. Frances and Ed often end up cooking what's fresh from the garden. "We live in Italy half the year and keep an extensive garden there as well," she says. "My books about Italy all revolve around the table–who's there, what's served, what's talked about. Food is culture, so it keeps me thinking as well as enjoying."
A visit is never complete without a moment at the table sharing what has been gathered from the garden and the farmers' market. Frances serves up crisp fried artichokes and risotto primavera, a celebration of her garden. Dessert is shared on the porch, contemplating the cola-colored river and the landscape. Chatwood is a writer's dream, and it's easy to see how one could be inspired by it both in the kitchen and at the desk. The Mayeses have just finished gathering many of their favorite recipes and stories about Italy into The Tuscan Sun Cookbook (March 2012), including the delicious strawberry semifreddo we tried. And fittingly, Frances's next project is a memoir about moving back to the South. After a few bites of strawberry semifreddo, Frances begins reminiscing about her Southern childhood and her compulsion to return from Italy to her American roots. "It was time to go home. That just one day seemed clear to me. But we still have a home in Tuscany, and I continue to love participating in two cultures. Each enriches the other."