When Vince Dooley schemes about the design of a particular section of his nearly 5-acre garden in Athens he’ll often make mental measurements in terms of first downs and envision plantings like football formations.
There’s the T-formation, with two plants in front and one in back, or the wishbone with one plant in front and two in back, and theoretically he says, he could run a spread, but he’d need big plants or small trees and lots of space for that.
Whatever the formation, the former University of Georgia head football coach and athletics director loves his plants. Several years after he stopped coaching between the hedges, the legendary coach who led his team to six Southeastern Conference titles and one national championship in 1980, discovered a late-blooming passion for the shrubs and flowers that now adorn his own backyard.
On Oct. 21, he, along with Atlanta gardening guru, author and radio show host Walter Reeves, will share insights about gardening at the Columbus Botanical Garden’s Garden Gala at the Green Island Country Club. The event marks the garden’s 10th anniversary and will serve as a fundraiser as organizers work toward realizing their ambitious 20-year master plan for a 22-acre garden.Tiger, Dawg and digger
As a one-time Auburn University quarterback turned hall-of-fame Georgia coach, Dooley is likely to get a hero’s welcome in Columbus, where football fans often bleed either red and black or orange and blue.
Dooley said his interest in gardening blossomed in a class he audited with University of Georgia horticulture professor Michael Dirr, a renowned expert on woody plants.
working as UGA - ics director, Dooley made a habit of auditing courses in areas of interest for him — from history and political science to art history. Then he decided he’d like to learn something about plants, too.
“I thought I’d take one course and satisfy that curiosity,” Dooley said. “Never did I realize that that one course … would lead to another would lead to another would lead to another. From that, this infection took place, so I’ve been horticulturally bit, and I haven’t found a remedy yet. I enjoy the mental part of it, studying the garden; I enjoy the physical part; I enjoy the spiritual part.”
Dooley, sporting his shirt and tie, studied alongside casually dressed horticulture students, learning the Latin names of hundreds of plants and the craft of cultivating them properly. He took several courses, from both Dirr and Dr. Allan Armitage, an expert in herbaceous plants.
He befriended both professors, and Dooley and Dirr can often be found tinkering together in the garden, touring nurseries across the Southeast, hiking and even exploring gardens overseas.
Now Dooley is finishing work on a book entitled “In Dooley’s Garden: The Horticultural Journey of a Football Coach,” due to be published in the spring.Collector’s garden
Dooley said he’s adopted different gardening philosophies over the course of studying horticulture and experimenting in his garden.
“My first philosophy was I wanted to get one of every plant in the world, which I soon found out was impossible, though I’m still working on it,” Dooley said.
Since both Dirr and Armitage work on producing new cultivars of plants, Dooley has been the grateful recipient of many unusual specimens.
Dooley has organized and named many sections of his garden, including one section at the front of the property that he calls “Weeper’s Creek.”
“There are weeping plants all along the creek so I tell the story that I used to go out there at night after we got beat and I’d weep in the creek,” he said.
Since his thumb turned green, he’s planted a variety of weeping trees and shrubs along Weeper’s Creek, including weeping hackberry, weeping river birch, weeping honey locust, a ‘Tidal Wave’ weeping katsura and a weeping bald cypress called “Cascade Falls” whose limbs climb about 25 feet high before bending back down to weep nearly to the ground.A maple, my love?
In other sections of the garden, Dooley has planted more than 100 varieties of Japanese maple, more than 100 varieties of hydrangea and more than 100 varieties of camellia.
The Japanese maple is perhaps his favorite, so much so that he planted a huge one for his wife, Barbara, in honor of their 39th wedding anniversary, only to discover that she’d been hoping for a more wearable gift. She even searched the lower limbs for a diamond necklace, but all she got was a closer view of the tree.
Still, Dooley loves his Japanese maples.
“Never met one I didn’t like,” he said. “Because of the wide variety of form, shape, color — they’re just magnificent. They’re elegant; they’re aristocratic.”
Other favorites in the Dooley garden are a wide variety of magnolias, camellias, dahlias, peonies and hydrangeas, including one cultivar that officially bears Dooley’s name. Dirr introduced the “Dooley hydrangea” after observing a hydrangea in Dooley’s garden that kept blooming after late-winter frosts knocked back most hydrangeas in the area. The cold-hardy “Dooley hydrangea” is now widely available at nurseries.
Gardener for the guys
Reeves, the Atlanta garden radio show host who will also speak at the Garden Gala, remembers being stunned by Dooley’s collection of Japanese maples and hydrangeas when he first visited Dooley’s garden.
It was a garden overflowing with plants and Dooley was obviously a collector.
“He has all these new, weird, odd plants,” Reeves said. “In every corner you’d see something planted that was new on the horticultural horizon.”
But Reeves said what most impresses him about Dooley is his commitment to serving and sharing his knowledge about gardening.
“His willingness to come speak about gardening makes gardening so much more appreciated by men,” Reeves said. “Vince is a guy’s guy, and to have someone who’s such a celebrated football coach be such a great gardener is of great benefit to the garden world.”