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The Secret Garden of Forest Hills How a wild and free garden won Marie Eason’s heart By Jamie Lynn Miller • Photographs by Mark Steelman

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t’s a soggy summer afternoon and one of Wilmington’s torrential, short-lived rainstorms is beating down on Marie Eason’s Forest Hills garden. The deluge ricochets off umbrella bones while thunder crackles louder and closer. For the tallest fauna in the yard, the two-legged kind, it is almost time to seek shelter. As for the flora, today is just another glorious day of abundance. “I like that everything is green, and natural,” says Eason, scanning a verdant panorama of holly ferns, variegated pittosporum, cherry laurels and a tree canopy from her back porch. Somewhere among the layers of plant-life, a family of barred owls sleeps. Save for the fountains, planters and old-world garden art, there isn’t a man-made structure in sight. Of course, she never minded the forts and tree houses that used to punctuate the grounds. Her children basically grew up out here. She recalls the first day she saw the house and the wild, overgrown expanse that would become an adventure playground for the kids and, eventually, her own personal haven. It was 1990. Eason’s former husband had just landed a job with a local medical practice, and the children, ages 9 and 4, had mixed feelings about leaving their home in Wilson, North Carolina. “After a very long day of looking at houses, the agent had an appointment

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to show us one more,” says Eason, who visibly cringed when she saw the 1941 Georgian Revival on Forest Hills Drive. “I didn’t even want to get out of the car. “I was just tired of old houses,” explains Eason, who had already been through four separate renovation projects during her marriage. But good manners got the better of her, so she got out of the car to tour the property. And then she saw the backyard garden. “It was totally overgrown — some of it was actually impassable,” she recalls. “But I thought, I have found a great treasure.” Eason has spent the last 23 years creating this secret garden: a lush, meandering wonderland filled with ponds, critters and a steady stream of surprises. With no formal training in garden design, she’s relied on good gardening genes and a penchant for finding solutions to bring her visions to life. “If I had a question, or an idea, I’d just get a book and figure it out,” she says. “I know it looks like a tremendous amount of work, but I’ve gotten it to the point where I can do as little or as much as I want and it still looks good. But you gotta have the passion for it. You’ve got to have the fire in your belly. Otherwise, it’s just a lawn.” Eason’s passion and can-do attitude came from her father, an automechanic whose hands-on work ethic didn’t end with cars. “We grew up in an inner-city area of Birmingham, Alabama, but we had a small yard, and Daddy was always planting and trying to make it spectacular.” If a friend or visitor complimented The Art & Soul of Wilmington

September 2013 Salt  

The Art & Soul of Wilmington

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