Flower power

John McWhorter takes pride in his garden at Trinity Oaks cottage

John McWhorter treasures memories of visiting his maternal grandmother in Atlanta. “She had a big ol’ house on a corner lot, with a wraparound porch,” says John, who turned 79 on July 10, his mother’s birthday. “She grew petunias. I loved the way they smelled.” When he joined the Air Force, John decided he was going to build a flower box for the little duplex he shared with wife Frankie. He filled them with fragrant petunias Driving back and forth to base, John spied hanging baskets of Rex begonias. He bought them next. When the couple lived in Duncan, S.C., near Greenville, John built a greenhouse to grow begonias. “I went to a lot of begonia club meetings,” Frankie says. Day lilies caught his fancy next. By the time he and Frankie moved to Rutherfordton in 1981, John had amassed some 1,000 varieties. John worked 38 years in human resources in the textile industry. During her career, Frankie worked a variety of jobs in 10-year stretches: high-school English teacher; public information office for a community college; director of Rutherford County Transit; manager of an OB-GYN practice; and finally retired as a tourism development officer for the N.C. Division of Tourism. “Thank goodness Mother insisted I take typing in 10th grade,” Frankie quips. The two met on a blind date and celebrated their 55th anniversary in July. In 2019, the couple moved to Trinity Oaks — halfway between their son in Oak Ridge and their daughter in Monroe. They have four college-aged grandchildren, three boys and one girl. When the couple visited Trinity Oaks, only one cottage was available. “For me as a gardener, it has the best backyard in the cottage area,” John points out. “It’s flatland there are woods for my hostas and shade plants up on the hill. Thee’s enough space beside the garage to have plants.” Along the sidewalk, another resident had put fist-sized flatrocks, and John liked that. He requested some, too. “I had a blank slate,” he says. Before their move, John donated all his day lilies to the Foothills Day Lily Club, an organization he and Frankie founded in 2000. He kept one — Buttered Popcorn, a golden yellow flower that reblooms. He also has All-American Chief, which he purchased from a grower in Cherryville he’s known for 30 years. The next addition to the cottage garden was hydrangeas. “When we moved here in 2019, the traffic island across the street from us had some older plants in it, and I asked Bill Johnson (the campus executive director) if I could replant that,” John says. “He said yes. We put in hydrangeas there, and I decided if I had them there, I wanted them here.” He’s now got five different varieties of hydrangeas — 40 total — some in the ground, some in pots. His top five flower favorites are, in order, day lilies, hydrangeas, bubblegum petunia and rocking red dianthus. And then there’s the fifth favorite, which brings us to the next part of the story: “Anything that has green leaves and roots.” Which is why Frankie calls her husband an obsessive-compulsive gardener. That may or may not be the correct term. But he is obsessed with it — and well, he is compulsive about it. Still, Frankie admits, “I’m not only his publicist; I’m also his enabler.” The two often visit the “sick, dead, and dying” areas of local garden shops to see what John can salvage. One morning, he watered a small pot of cheerful daisies — or at least they were cheerful after John gave them some TLC. He and Bill have found kindred spirits in one another. “We both love to garden,” Bill says. “John is an expert in plants and has helped me out a lot. He has been instrumental in helping us develop long-term landscaping plans for the entire campus. He’s a good friend, and gardening provides him a way to continue his passion.” Yet life has not been the proverbial bed of roses. In January 2013, John was getting out of the shower and thought things looked “strange.” He mentioned this to Frankie who said, “You may be having a stroke. Take these aspirins and let’s go to the emergency room.” Frankie was right. The stroke affected John’s occipital lobe, which means he lost his peripheral vision. This means he can no longer drive. “It was devastating to my psyche,” John says. “It was hard accepting that. Then I realized it ain’t gonna change. I still have periods when I think about the fact that I can’t do some things. But everybody plays with the cards they’re dealt.” “He was determined,” Frankie says. “He still cooks and gardens and paints. He still tells me how to do the laundry and where to park.” John still reads and still paints — another passion — and another story for another day. “I’m lucky,” he says. “The only real thing that bothers me is not driving.” Frankie is happy to serve as his chauffeur. He calls her “Hoke,” after Morgan Freeman’s character in “Driving Miss Daisy.” You may surmise that the two keep up a constant banter. You would be correct. “I give him hell sometimes,” she says. “Don’t print that!” Frankie does have to admit she’s pleased that John can no longer sneak in plants under cover of darkness. “I am serious!” she says. “I always used to ask him, ‘Now what did you buy today?’” A lady in Rutherfordton once told her, “The way you two communicate is not right.” Frankie ignored her. “She was a stick in the mud,” she says. “We’re attracted to each other because we’re different. I do understand that gardening feeds his soul. It’s really his salvation.” “My grandmother may be smiling down on me from heaven,” John says. She surely is.

Story written by Susan Shinn Turner