by Suzanne Labry
The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
Clara Curtis is not your everyday quilter.
Oh, she loves working with fabric just as much as the rest of us do; it’s just that most of the time, her quilt projects involve different materials and are, to understate it, somewhat larger than those undertaken by most quilters.
You see, Clara is the Director for Design, Education, and Exhibits at The North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville. And for the past 19 years, it has been her biennial responsibility to create the Arboretum’s world famous Quilt Garden.
This magnificent “quilt” contains 24 “blocks” made up of 16-square foot flowerbeds, “sashed” with gravel and slate pathways. Each block is artfully packed with blooming plants and brightly colored foliage, carefully arranged to represent an overall quilt pattern.
Once Clara has selected the pattern to be depicted, it remains in place for two years, but the plants used as “fabrics” are changed for each season in early April, mid-May, and mid-September.
The Quilt Garden pattern for 2015 is Rail Fence. Previous patterns have included Bowtie, Grandmother’s Fan, Kaleidoscope, Log Cabin, Flower Basket, Circle Within a Circle, and Double Wedding Ring.
The plants, which are grown in the Arboretum’s production greenhouse, are replaced throughout each season to ensure that the colors stay vibrant and fresh and seasonally appropriate, while the pattern remains static.
Keeping track of all that is a tall order, but Clara is particularly well suited to the task. Her degree in Horticulture Science and 30 years of experience in public horticulture provide solid credentials on the plant side of the equation.
But it is her Appalachian heritage (born and raised in Haywood County, N.C.); being a quilter herself with a quilting bloodline that goes way back on both sides of her family; and an artist’s eye for color and light that help her interpret traditional quilt patterns into massive floral quilts.
Clara uses quilt design software to determine whether a particular pattern will work within the constraints of the garden layout, which is six blocks across and four down.
“It’s just math,” she says. She knows from experience that she cannot use more than five colors or shapes within each block or the design becomes too busy. She calculates the precise number of violas, pansies, chrysanthemums, marigolds, begonias, impatiens, coleus, or other bedding plants it will take to implement her color scheme.
Because the Quilt Garden is intended to honor the “close ties between heritage crafts and gardening and the contemporary art and craft of quilting in the Southern Appalachian region,” Clara always picks a traditional quilt pattern with a history in the mountains around Asheville.
Like any quilter, Clara enjoys the challenge of combining colors and textures to present a desired overall image in her finished quilt—it’s just that instead of being put together with needle and thread, Clara’s quilts require a shovel and trowel.