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Garden Guru: History, high tea to be served on Malden garden tour

By John Porter
John Porter
Unlike other houses built along the Kanawha River at Malden, Larry Rowe's historic house, Alma Lee, faces the river.
John Porter Larry Rowe has spent years creating his gardens.
John Porter Yellow evening primroses add splashes of color in a perennial bed.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- By day, Larry Rowe is a busy lawyer, but by night he is a fanatical gardening phenom. His landscape and his historic house are gems in the small community of Malden, where he also practices law. During a recent visit, his passion for gardening and the pride in his landscape was more than evident, as was his love for his community and his neighbors.

Rowe's home, Alma Lee (named for his grandmother) is a unique fixture to the area; it is the only stately house built along the Kanawha River that was built to face the river. Most other homes along the river are built with their backs to the river, but not Alma Lee.

When you approach the house, there is a gentle charm to the home and landscape, much like any other home in the area. Rowe has incorporated his favorite plants in what is the house's backyard -- plants from his friends, lunaria (silver dollars) from seeds from his mother, and an island of azalea beneath a towering crape myrtle.

As you walk to the front of the house along the river, though, you can see why it's called the "Grand Dame of the Kanawha." Two stories of columned verandas sit atop brick arches, and a river front lawn is surrounded by the lush landscape of Rowe's handiwork.

As you walk through the beautiful gardens, you can tell that there is a natural, organic method to the landscape rather than a rigid design. Sweet pea, columbine and the lunaria are spread through the garden by seed, while iris, mallow, primrose and daylilies naturalize to fill in large areas. Roses of all types and sizes provide colorful accents against a backdrop of trees and shrubs. The hillsides flanking the house are shade gardens filled with all manner of hosta.

"I've found that there have been stages in my garden and in my life as a gardener," Rowe said. "At first I set the foundation of the gardens, finding the shapes and adding in common plants. Then I added in all of the interest and embellishment -- flowers and roses and all of the colors. Now I'm entering a phase where I'm looking to the future. I'm looking at replacing some of the high-maintenance foundation plants with lower maintenance things like evergreen trees and shrubs."

Rowe is a good example of how a garden, no matter how large or small, can be an expression of personality and passion. You can almost read a little bit of a person's history in their garden, especially when they talk about their garden.

This visit to Alma Lee was at Rowe's invitation to serve one of his other passions -- community service. Rowe and some of his neighbors are opening their homes and gardens as a fundraiser for the organization Kanawha Valley Village People. The organization empowers aging Baby Boomers to help themselves by volunteering their talents to help each other, developing recreational opportunities and sharing information on important services for seniors. Rowe serves as a steering committee member for the organization.

The fundraiser will include a high tea served on the veranda at Alma Lee, followed by tours of the house and garden and other historic homes and gardens in the town. Thanks to salt brine, Malden was home to the first big industry and earliest center of wealth in western Virginia. Malden is abundant in history -- from the freedom home of Booker T. Washington to many fine houses that sprung up from the salt wealth. The tour will visit some of this history as the state of West Virginia celebrates its sesquicentennial.

The tea and tour begins at 4 p.m. June 22 at Alma Lee. A suggested donation of $25 per person or $35 per couple is suggested and RSVPs are requested. To make a reservation, call the law offices of Larry Rowe at 304-925-1333.

John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.porter@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVUgardenguru.


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