“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” So begins Out of Africa, the memoir of Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, written under the pen name of Isak Dinesen, and a compelling tribute to the people and land she loved for 17 years. I now have my own farm in the rolling countryside of Oglethorpe County, Georgia, and while it bears no resemblance to hers, it’s a place that draws me as surely as Kenya drew the baroness.
To call it a farm is perhaps a stretch. Two years ago I bought this charming, 1830s white clapboard cottage with a small meadow in Lexington, Georgia. That meadow is now a fruit orchard and satisfies my need to reacquaint myself with my agrarian roots.
I hadn’t known I needed a country house until I got a call from Rick Berry, a dear and cherished friend and the owner of the nursery Goodness Grows. He said, “There’s a house up here with your name on it.” And so I went to see. It looked like a little jewel in a perfect setting.
And now I own that house, originally the home of the Crawford family. I go there every week, usually from Thursday through Sunday. My Jack Russell terriers—Leo, Jelly Bean, and Baby Ruth—can run and play in my fenced-in yard while I work in my garden. In autumn we have lots of really beautiful fall color. For me, it’s a very tranquil experience. It’s so quiet; you can almost hear the leaves falling.
Lexington, about 20 miles from Athens (a thriving college town and home of the University of Georgia), remains serene and untouched. With a population of 150 or so, a few antiques shops, and Oglethorpe Fresh (the local Saturday market where I buy my eggs), there is a deep pride in the historic roots of the community.
Buying this house with its untouched interior and land gave me a blank canvas to design and live a simpler lifestyle. I’ve furnished it with pieces suitable for a country life and with a myriad collection of containers for flowers and foliage—tole, terra-cotta (both glazed and unglazed), handblown glass, and precious but tarnished silver.
For after all, I now own a home across the street from what I consider the country’s best source of beautifully grown and curated plants. The nursery’s artfully arranged display beds are filled with shrubs, trees, and herbs, but their real strength is in their herbaceous perennials, which provide a long parade of blossoms and foliage that compel one to snip and gather and arrange. I grow what I wish in my own garden here, but what luxury to have all of Goodness Grows’ bounty at my disposal, and to share found plants and heirloom seeds with them.
As for the house, I think it is the porches I love best. From the front porch I can watch the world go by, or as much of the world as might be traveling out of Lexington on Elberton Road. Facing the garden, the back porch is where I go to reflect, read, or have my meals. Often I’ll also eat lunch just off the back porch at my granite dining table.
From the side porch I have the view of a grove of young long-needle pines, given to me by Steve Kenney of Nature’s Tree Farm. On its swing, I reflect back on my childhood in rural South Carolina and feel completely at home in this small country town.
By Ryan Gainey | Photography by Sarah Dorio
The late garden designer and author Ryan Gainey wrote a regular column in Flower for many years, sharing his remarkable gardening knowledge and stories.
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