October 2007
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Loachapoka’s Tom Corley Specializes in Growing the Improbable

  Loachapoka gardener Tom Corley shows the delicate fall blooms of his plumleaf native azalea.
By Kellie Henderson

As Tom Corley sits in a rush-seat rocking chair underneath century-old rafters on the front porch of his log house in Loachapoka, the birds and insects in his garden sing a chorus so overwhelming it seems he could stretch out his arms and scoop them up. An impressive 16 acres of natural beauty, it’s easy to understand why flora and fauna alike are proud to call Corley’s garden home.

A native of Coosa County, Corley said he moved to Auburn in 1939 when he enrolled as a student at Auburn University, a school and community that would become his home.

"I’ve been here ever since, except during the war," he said.

Corley served as an Army captain in World War II, and even made a garden ornament from a spent large artillery casing he brought home as a memento.

Corley graduated from Auburn University (AU) with a degree in Ag Engineering, and worked at the University as both a researcher and an administrator until his retirement in 1984. The school still bears witness to his time and dedication with the Ag Engineering building, where Corley took his first class, now bearing his name.

Corley said despite his love of gardening, he didn’t study horticulture at AU.

"I just learned through trial and error. I’ve had a lot of plants over the years that didn’t make it, same as any gardener. You just learn over time what works," he said.

Standing at the end of a pier he built out to a boulder native to his pond site, Tom Corley points out the plantings he’s made around the pond.  
But what makes Corley’s garden unique is his ability to make work what so many people said wasn’t possible. In addition to a massive collection of camellias and native azaleas, Corley also grows rhododendrons in his Loachapoka paradise.

"People say you can’t grow rhododendrons in Alabama, and after this year, I’ve about decided they’re right," Corley said, referring to the drought that has devastated Alabama this year.

"I’ve lost more plants this year than I have in the past twenty years combined," said Corley, but visitors to his garden would never know it.

"I bought this place in 1964 and built the pond in 1965. It was all wilderness then. I cut down all the hickory, sweet gum and kudzu, but left the dogwoods and nicer trees. In the early 70s, I planted over 1,000 camellia seedlings, and I planted the native azaleas and rhododendrons in the late 70s and early 80s," he said.

Another impressive aspect of Corley’s garden is that he said he’s never bought a plant. With rhododendrons regarded as an impossible plant in his area, Tom likely couldn’t have bought them from a nursery or garden center if he’d wanted to.

  Amid the lush foliage and flowers of Corley’s garden is the log home he had disassembled, moved to his property and reassembled by craftsman. Corley maintains that anything that size is a house, not a cabin.
"I had a friend who had a friend in North Carolina who’d sent him some rhododendron cuttings. He rooted them, and later I took some cuttings from him," he said.

And now those same rhododendrons are more like trees than shrubs, their dark, elongated leaves towering overhead.

And according to Corley, he has grown all his cuttings and seedlings at his home in Auburn without the use of a greenhouse.

"I start my plants in a rooting box at home, and I gather seeds from the camellias in early September and from the azaleas and rhododendrons several weeks later. But I’ve slowed that down some. It takes four to five years to get blooms when you start from seed, and at my age, that’s a long time," said Corley.

While Tom and his wife Mary, both in their eighties, still live in Auburn, their daughter June recently moved into the log house in Loachapoka.

"I don’t know what I would’ve done without her help. I’d probably have sold the place," he said.

"It’s been so dry this year that we’re spending about three hours a day watering, and dragging water hoses is exhausting work. I’m just glad my dad’s healthy enough at his age to still work so hard, but I guess all that gardening is probably the reason he’s in such good shape," said June.

According to Tom, he also cross-pollinates and grafts to produce new plants, a process that yielded a beautifully variegated camellia blossom he named for his wife, Mary Corley.

He’s also been adding several varieties of Japanese maples to his landscape, creating swaths of brilliant color that billow in the autumn breeze.

"That’s my newest project," he said as he makes his way into the clearing he created and then dotted with the diminutive maples.

"It’s tough work planting through all those old roots," he said, though the satisfaction in his eyes belies any trouble it took to accomplish the task.

While Tom spends his weekends working on the plants at his home in Auburn, he makes the ten minute drive to his Loachapoka property every weekday. And even though he spends much of the day working in his spacious garden, he also relaxes a while inside the log house.

"Now, it’s not a cabin," he said, and he pauses mid-thought, interrupted by the drumming of a group of hummingbirds flooding the enormous begonia next to the front porch steps.

"Anything this size is a house. Originally, the kitchen was a separate outbuilding, and two rooms had been added later to join it to the main house, so when we moved it, we left them out and moved the kitchen up to the house," Corley said.

He purchased the structure in 1982, and hired a crew to disassemble, number the logs, move it to his Loachapoka property and reassemble it there.

"My brother owned the property in Coosa County where the house was, and he sold it to a poultry farmer who didn’t want the house. He told me he’d sell it to me for $200. I tried to talk him down to $150, but he wouldn’t budge," said Corley.

The building now is a charming fixture in the midst of a garden decades in the making, and while Tom Corley may be a serious gardener, he’s hardly a serious man.

"Looks pretty good for something I started last year, huh?" he jokes.

Tom said he shops the Taleecon Farmers Cooperative for fertilizer and herbicides.

"I use Crossbow on tree stumps to keep them from coming back, and I use lots of Round-Up around my plants to keep the weeds from taking over," he said.

Corley adds that the Co-op is significant to him for personal reasons as well.

"Peter Garrett was a friend of mine, and his son too. He was one of the men who got AFC started, and he believed in it," said Corley.

Garrett was the first CEO of Alabama Farmers Cooperative for whom the E. P. Garrett Manager of the Year Award is named.

Always a local attraction, Corley and his garden have been featured in numerous publications, but he said an article on his native azaleas that appeared last year in Southern Living drew more attention than he could have imagined.

"I had phone calls and letters from Texas, Colorado, Michigan; I’ve had visitors from over 30 states and several foreign countries," he said, adding humbly, "not just to see me, but because I’m close to Auburn University."

And that humility and graciousness is what makes a trip to his garden more special than all the beautiful blooms and charming trails he’s cultivated there.

Kellie Henderson is a freelance writer from Troy.