Gardening with a Legend

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Hall of Fame former football coach Vince Dooley takes on a second career as a master gardener.

By Gwyn Herbein

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For many people, a well-cultivated garden is a world away from a college football field. Hydrangeas, roses and camellias seemingly have little to do with thousands of screaming fans, touchdowns and end zone victory dances.

For former University of Georgia (UGA) football coach Vince Dooley, however, the two are closer than some might think. The award-winning coach, once recognized as college football’s coach of the year by multiple organizations, stepped quietly into retirement and transformed his lifelong love of learning into a lovingly tended garden that has attracted nationwide attention.

“It gets me away from everything,” he says of gardening. “It is good for the body and good for the mind. It is stimulating to learn about the plants and their history. It is good for the soul to relax and enjoy nature.”

Digging Deep

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As one of the winningest coaches in NCAA history, Alabama native Dooley served as the head football coach at UGA for 25 years, from 1964 to 1988. Several of those years overlapped with his tenure as the university’s athletic director, a position he held from 1979 to 2004. Yet even during those years, behind the scenes he spent hours indulging his innate curiosity about a wide range of topics, aided by a campus filled with experts on nearly every imaginable topic.

“The great thing about living around a university is that if you have a curiosity about anything, you can satisfy it,” he says. “I’ve always loved history, especially the Civil War, and later developed a love of horticulture.”

This love of horticulture—and inquisitiveness about things like why trees turned colors—led him to audit several courses on the subject. “I thought it would satisfy my curiosity, but one thing led to another, led to another, led to another,” he says.

Dooley, who loves gardening in part because of its differences from football, appreciates the  myriad nuances between the two. As for the similarities between his former career and his current pastime, Dooley experiences a familiar feeling of satisfaction when he knows that his plants are thriving.

“When you get them in the right place, they look like football players when you put them in their best positions,” he says.

Also keeping the flame of Dooley’s plant passions alive were relationships he developed with two UGA experts in the field, Drs. Allan Armitage and Michael Dirr. “Dirr has written the bible on wooded trees and plants, and Armitage has written the bible on herbaceous plants,” Dooley says. Their friendship developed into expeditions to visit gardens around the world, with Dooley accompanying Dirr to Belgium, as well as on two trips to England.

Dooley admits that his positions at the university often didn’t leave him a lot of time for auditing courses and studying, but he made the most of off-seasons and other breaks. “I’ve always been one to stay busy, and there’s a joy to learning,” he says. “You get bit [by] the bug, and there’s no cure for the infection.”

Home Field Advantage

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As a motivational speaker who travels often, Dooley seeks out gardens to visit in various cities across the country. “I have been asked to speak and find myself [in gardens in] Portland, Ore., Lexington, Va., or St. Louis,” he recalls.

When it comes to his own garden located at the 2.5-acre Athens home that Dooley and his wife, Barbara, have occupied since they first moved to Georgia in 1964, Dooley finds that experimentation is the best method.

“Experience is the best teacher,” he says. “Every time I see a plant I don’t have, I want to go get it.”

He admits that sometimes finding a spot for all of the different things he brings home can be challenging, but he makes room—especially for the plants he loves most. “I love hydrangeas, and they do well here,” he explains. “I love camellias. I like peonies, but I wish we were in a better spot to grow them here. I love dahlias; those are some of my favorites. One of [my] most favorites [are] Japanese maples because there is an endless variety of shapes and colors and they are constantly changing.”

In the process of finding more space for his garden, Dooley often finds himself redesigning its areas. He is planning a slight expansion of the land, courtesy of some of his neighbors.

“I do have an area adjacent to me that neighbors have designated as a conservation easement,” he says. “They don’t mind me planting if I have extra plants. They encourage it because it does beautify the area while also giving me more space.”

From Garden to Paper and Beyond

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Having penned and contributed to more than 10 books about UGA and football (including some children’s books on these topics), Dooley decided to record his gardening experiences. With illustrations by Steve Penley and a foreword by professors Dirr and Armitage, Dooley documented his gardening process in the 2010 release, “Vince Dooley’s Garden: A Horticultural Journey of a Football Coach.” Part diary and part guidebook, it traces the coach’s love of horticulture and also takes readers on a visual tour of his Athens garden.

“I’m an inspiration to anyone who wants to be a gardener late in life; if I can do it, anyone can,” he says. “[When I started], I didn’t know a grapefruit from a gladiola.”

In addition to receiving critical acclaim for his book, Dooley’s success in the gardening world has mirrored his achievements on the football field. Several respected horticulturalists named a species of hydrangea, camellia and a native azalea after Dooley. Hydrangea macrophylla, or the Dooley hydrangea, was a chance discovery that Dirr made while perusing Dooley’s garden in 1996. A late season freeze had wiped out all other French hydrangeas, but one plant, which had sat in Dooley’s yard for 40 years unnoticed, continued to bloom. Because the plant produces flowers on lateral buds, the Dooley hydrangea is more tolerant of cold than similar hydrangeas. Depending on soil acidity, which primarily determines the color of hydrangea blooms, Dooley hydrangeas can either be blue or pink. The hybrid C. reticulata x C. japonica camellia, a large single scarlet with yellow stamens, was registered in 2004 and named after Dooley.

Dooley’s relationships with Dirr and Armitage have helped him immensely. “Their greatest joy is introducing new plants to the industry,” he says of his mentors, noting that they have been responsible for more than 100 such introductions. In addition, Dooley’s innate curiosity has helped him foster relationships with other gardeners and nursery proprietors across the country. “[I know people who] don’t mind sharing their private collection with me, because I do it for pleasure, not profit,” he says. “I’m not a competitor.”

In 2000, he was honored by the Georgia Urban Forest Council for his work in converting the University of Georgia campus to an arboretum. Dooley also achieved the rank of master gardener from the American Horticultural Society, one of the highest honors bestowed upon those in the horticulture field. He underwent additional intense training in various horticultural topics, and now volunteers in the community by giving lectures, conducting research and taking on other projects.

While Dooley considers himself a role model for many who come to gardening late in life, he admits it may not be for everyone. One bit of advice he shares with would-be green thumbs is to foster a spirit of experimentation and open-mindedness in the garden.

“If you enjoy working [in] the yard, it’s fun to experiment,” he explains. “You will learn as you go, and you’ll have some disappointments along the way, but you always learn.”

Dooley’s obvious passion for tending his garden likely means he will continue digging in the dirt for years to come—and those all across the country have much to learn from the master coach turned master gardener.

Behind the Blooms at Sea Island

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Vince Dooley is not the only one in Georgia whose garden can turn anyone green with envy. At Sea Island, the gardens complement the resort’s interior with a constantly changing, seasonal assortment of growth. Yates Anderson, director of landscaping at Sea Island, describes the resort’s overall aesthetic as formal, with a transition toward plant selections that blend into nature as they move farther away from the physical structures. Anderson and his team are responsible for the care and maintenance of roughly 65 acres of landscape around the resort.

“Each garden space was designed with aesthetics in mind, but due to the resort’s potential use of the space, whether for a wedding ceremony, cocktail party or a game of bocce ball, the space must function well also,” he explains.

Behind the scenes, these aesthetics come together through a unique combination of research, analysis and intuition about what works best in the climate—a task that the staff at Sea Island is more than equipped to handle. The team pays close attention to seasonal colors, so that blooms are available for guests year-round—something especially important for the upcoming holiday season.

“From time to time we work with consultants, such as arborists, but, fortunately I’ve had the opportunity to work with a very talented in-house design and install team,” Anderson says. “Each year we strive to do more with lighting and decorations for the Christmas season. We have some great ideas in the planning phases for this coming Christmas.”

With so much space to utilize, the design team at Sea Island strives to keep its gardens fresh and fun. Anderson says the resort’s design team gets most of its inspiration from historical Palm Beach gardens as well as the Mediterranean landscape. The grounds also share a few features with those of Dooley’s garden, including Southern heirloom plants like hydrangeas and camellias.

“Coach Dooley is also known for his interest in new and unusual varieties of plants,” Anderson says. “I am continually in search of new plants that will do well in Sea Island’s climate conditions.”

Both Dooley and Sea Island also recently experimented with vegetable gardening at Broadfield, A Sea Island Sporting Club and Lodge. “These crops are being incorporated into several of Sea Island’s restaurants,” Anderson comments. “This has been a fun new project for our team that I encourage all of our guests and members to explore.”

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