"I prune, therefore I am."
Gardening writer Lee May is joking, but he has a point.
Since he and his wife, Lyn, moved from Atlanta to East Haddam in 2001, May has created a fascinating Asian-style garden, using bonsai techniques on his trees and shrubs and incorporating bamboo, mosses, stone, large rocks, small bridges, found objects and sculpture in his unusual, highly personal landscape.
The yard had been an empty canvas, almost devoid of any vegetation except for grass. May recalls that he spent two weeks that autumn looking out each window at the blank slate before digging the first hole.
The first step was putting in a dry bed stream of stone that undulates its way across the front of the house. He also trucked in 16 tons of trap rock, a dark chunky stone he liked for its texture, and placed each one by hand at the entry to the 1-acre property.
May says he planted plants where he thought they might be happy and for his own viewing pleasure, both from within the house and when walking around.
May, who worked as a newspaper reporter for many years — for the Los Angeles Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution — before turning to gardening writing, is well known as the author of "In My Father's Garden," a memoir about reconnecting with his father after four decades, largely through their shared love of growing things.
May will speak about gardening and the gardening life at Thursday's meeting of the Connecticut Horticultural Society in West Hartford.
As May wanders through his garden accompanied by his tortoise-shell cat, Bette, every plant has a story. A twice-blooming cherry, Prunus subhirtella 'autumnalis,' is covered with buds, and a few already have begun to blossom. "I pruned it to a fare-thee-well," May says.
A paperbark maple that had grown too close to the house is now under control and flourishing, since May began pollarding it — removing its upper branches.
"What I look for is a plant or tree that has rhythm — I call it the inner tree — that has movement … or potential for movement. What I try to do is uncover the movement in the tree. … When I prune, I am looking for something that exposes the essence of the tree."
Japanese maples and hemlocks are pruned for weeping effects. Because the yard is not large, May says he has to keep the garden in scale. He continues to prune a bald cypress that he bought as a bonsai but then put in the ground; otherwise it would tower over the house.
For all its elegant bonsai, May's garden is whimsical, too. Rubber snakes are tucked here and there. "I brought them in to try to scare the squirrels," he says. "They were amused."
Bright blue streamers flutter from twirled tomato stakes in one garden folly, and some fencing is topped with a collection of unusual bottles. A bench and chair are painted a brilliant purple.
May, 69, who says he was "born in Cuba — beat, beat — Cuba, Alabama," lived there until he was 5. His family moved to Meridian, Miss., and then East St. Louis, Ill. He spent three years in the Army and started college at age 27, majoring in English literature at Cleveland State University and then earning a master's degree at Columbia School of Journalism. He started his career in Atlanta, eventually writing editorials and signed columns.
At one point he was "drafted from the ivory tower to go to South Georgia and work in fields where you strip bark from pine trees" for an investigative story on working conditions in the turpentine industry. Working 60-plus hours per week, he says, he earned $40 in his best week.
"It made the ivory tower look real good," May recalls. The series won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Grand Prize.
May later worked for 12 years for the Los Angeles Times, covering the White House, Congress and immigration issues in Washington, D.C., and then covering nine Southern states as the paper's Atlanta bureau chief.
In 1992, he abruptly decided to quit, telling his wife, "I cannot spend any more of my life covering bad news." He started writing features for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and realized that every story had something to do with gardening, and often a gardener's passion for gardening.
For example, his feature about Vince Dooley, football coach at the University of Georgia — "a macho man of men who shapes macho men" — turned into a story about a cold-hardy hydrangea Dooley had propagated to bloom into December. An editor noticed May's bent and launched him on a decade-long stint as a gardening columnist.
"There are no news junkies who are as avid about news as even the simply passionate gardener" is passionate about gardening, May says. "I was delighted to make that discovery."
Lee May will talk on "Life Lessons from the South, North and My Father" Thursday, Nov. 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Connecticut Horticultural Society's meeting at Emanuel Synagogue, 160 Mohegan Drive, West Hartford. Admission is $10, free for society members. Call 860-529-8713, or go to http://www.cthort.org.