By Bernie Petit
If you can’t find Wing Haven, tucked away on one of the most idyllic streets in the Myers Park neighborhood, just look up in the sky.
The birds will tell you where to go.
One of Charlotte’s hidden treasures, Wing Haven provides a sanctuary for birds just outside the heart of the city. Eddie Clarkson built the house in 1927 as a gift for his Texan bride, Elizabeth Clarkson.
When Elizabeth arrived in Charlotte, the house stood on a field of red clay, with a small sapling you could barely see from the back of the house. She started her garden the next day.
That sapling is now a magnificent, towering willow oak surrounded by lush greenery.
“A lot of what Elizabeth did with her garden design – and she had no formal training, keep that in mind – she wanted long vistas,” said Wing Haven Development & Public Relations Officer Sherry Hall.
“Now in gardening magazines and books, there is a general acceptance that you do big, long borders with a repetition of plants and that really was not the way of gardening back in her day. She really was ahead of her time in a lot of respects.”
The garden of a lifetime
The focus of the Clarksons’ garden shifted in 1930 after Elizabeth’s bout with undulant fever. Bedridden, Elizabeth documented the behavior of the birds she saw outside her bedroom window and from the chaise lounge in the covered
She would then ensure their garden contained the basic requirements of a habitat attractive to birds – nesting sites, shelter from predators, food sources and water.
The garden continues to flourish, said Wing Haven garden curator Jeff Drum.
“The Clarksons spent a lifetime putting this garden together,” Drum said. “They spent everything they had in their life putting it together and then gave it all away for the community to continue to come and enjoy.”
And there’s plenty to appreciate.
‘A sense of sanctuary’
A self-guided tour of both gardens can take as little as 30 minutes, but Hall recommends allowing at least an hour to stop, sit and watch for birds and other wildlife.
There’s usually not a lot of activity in the heat of the day, so opt for mornings or late afternoons if you go.
“I would encourage people to just take their time to go through and to let their senses guide them,” Hall said.
The fall and the spring are obviously great times to go. Winter, though, can actually be one of the nicer times to see the birds, Drum said.
“The deciduous trees have lost their leaves so the garden is more open, which usually attracts a lot of birds,” he said. “It’s a great time for us to observe bluebirds we didn’t see in the summer because bluebirds like more of an open kind of area.”
You have to look up to see that, too. But look down every so often, too. You’ll notice plaques with famous sayings or scripture along the brick paths that wind through the garden.
Those plaques, as well as the bricks, statuaries, fountains and water features found in the formal and natural garden areas, were gifts the Clarksons gave each other for birthdays and anniversaries.
“They weren’t wealthy but they loved to entertain and share their spaces with the public and with friends and neighbors,” Hall said. “There were not a lot of opulent or extravagant elements of design in this garden, even though it has stood the test of time. There’s very much a sense of sanctuary Elizabeth created that exists in this garden today.”
The Elizabeth Lawrence Garden
Just like any good garden, Wing Haven continues to grow. During his life, Eddie – who died in 1992, five years after his wife – bought small parcels of land as neighbors were willing to sell and eventually expanded their property to 3 ½ acres.
Ten houses down the street is Wing Haven’s latest bloom – the Elizabeth Lawrence Garden. Elizabeth Lawrence, an author and former garden writer for The Charlotte Observer, built her Ridgeway Avenue home in 1949. She started her garden not as a bird sanctuary but as a laboratory, testing what plants would thrive in North Carolina weather.
Lawrence’s 1941 book, “A Southern Garden,” is still considered the quintessential book on the topic. Her contributions to and international fame in the gardening world led the Wing Have Foundation to collaborate with The Garden Conservancy, based in Garrison, N.Y., to save the home and garden when they went up for sale five years ago, said Wing Haven board chair Mary Claire Wall.
“So much of Charlotte has been about new growth and the New South and once things are about 50 years old we tend to tear them down and build something new,” Wall said. “We felt like this is unique. It’s the only existing garden that she tended anywhere.”
Two Gardens, One Experience?
Wing Haven is at 248 Ridgewood Ave., Charlotte. The parking lot is between both gardens near 260 Ridgewood Ave. Hours are 3-5 p.m. Tuesday, 10 a.m.-noon Wednesday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday. Admission is $6 adults and free for members and children 17 years old and younger; cost includes entry to both Wing Haven’s Clarkson garden and Elizabeth Lawrence Garden.
Wing Haven holds its annual Fall Plant Sale from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 11 and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 11-12. Shop early for the best selection.
For more information, visit www.winghavengardens.com or call 704-331-0664.