Story by DANNY MOGLE // March/April 2017
Barbara Stump doesn’t mince words when she describes what one of the most beautiful places in the state looked like not so long ago.
“It was a dump,” she says of the eight acres that make up the Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.
The Mize Garden — the largest azalea garden in Texas — is the star attraction of the city’s annual azalea trail. When the flowers are in bloom, the breathtaking color attracts thousands of admirers near and far.
The university’s trustees approved an ambitious project to transform bottomlands along LaNana Creek on the eastern edge of the campus after community donors, including the daughter of the garden’s namesake, provided funding.
Stump, who at the time was a graduate student, was given the task of creating a place of beauty on the overgrown, weed-filled property.
“Since the area had been used as a dairy farm and an informal dump site, garbage, fencing and an old couch were … removed,” she shares in her book “The Azaleas of Nacogdoches.”
Machetes, chainsaws and earth-moving equipment were used to clear away the overgrowth and create the paths that meander among maples, towering loblolly pines and dozens of raised beds of flowers.
Many of the plants were donated by the Azalea Society of America and area nurseries. The garden was dedicated in 2000.
Stump says she was inspired by informal Japanese gardens and the work of famous 20th century landscape designers, including Jens Jensen, who was known for placing a central circular sitting area in gardens.
“One key design principle used was borrowed landscape,” she says in the book. “Our planting beds — all the areas not surfaced for trails — were designed so they would appear to overlap as a visitor looked over the landscape.”
White azaleas create buffer color and darker shades of azaleas and other flowers pull the eye deeper into the garden. Dozens of benches are scattered along the walking trails.
The 46 planting beds of irregular shapes contain about 6,500 azaleas, 200 camellias, 200 varieties of Japanese maples, 180 varieties of hydrangea, and 400 ornamental trees and shrubs, according to information from the university.
“I wanted it to always be colorful and something that people could easily walk,” Stump says.
CITY OF GARDENS
Besides Mize Azalea Garden, the Stephen F. Austin State University campus also houses the 10-acre Mast Arboretum, The 42-acre Pineywoods Native Plant Center, the 8-acre Gayla Mize Garden, Kingham Children’s Garden and SFA Recreational Trails and Gardens.
The university’s garden system attracts the most visitors during the Nacogdoches Azalea Trail, which this year will take place March 15 through April 15.
The trail is made up three driving routes of about eight miles each that take visitors to historical sites, the university campus and many neighborhoods full of homes known for impressive azalea plantings.
The Azalea Society of America has designated Nacogdoches as an Azalea City of America and in 2013 the state legislature named the city the Garden Capital of Texas.
Dawn Stover, a horticulture research associate at the university, never tires of spending time in the Mize Azalea Garden. “It’s a joyful place. It makes your heart sing,” she says.
There are places in the garden, she says, where the noisy and busy world seems to temporarily disappear and calmness envelopes the soul.
Sherrie Randall agrees. She has led hundreds of tour groups through the garden.
“I have the easiest job in the world,” she says of the task. “It is a fun thing to do and being in the garden is enjoyable. These (visitors) are plant lovers to begin with and they really appreciate it.”
Stump says it is gratifying to have designed the garden and see it used by so many people as a place to go walking and enjoy life. “People go there when they want to be calm,” she says.
Stump only has one regret. “I wish my dad could have (lived long enough to have) seen it. He loves color. He would have loved it.”
Photos courtesy of Stephen F. Austin State University.