As a farm boy in a glitzy Peachtree condo, bulbs were my saving grace

How paper whites and amaryllis brought life to my sterile high-rise space

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Paper whites amaryllis condo Atlanta

Illustration by Babeth Lafon

In the early 2000s, I visited a friend in Thailand who lived in a high-rise condo with a sleek, minimalist vibe and a collection of beautiful contemporary furniture. It got me to thinking: Why was I stuck in a bungalow off Cheshire Bridge Road with a faded gold sofa, my mom’s old wing chairs, and a bunch of velvet pillows and tassels? I wanted my Bangkok friend’s life.

Back in Atlanta, it didn’t take long for me to sell my house on Country Lane and buy an 18th-floor condo in the glitzy new Metropolis development at the corner of 10th and Peachtree. Friends dropped by for martinis. They raved about the twinkly view. We went to the theater. Life was grand.

Or was it?

The thing about living in the sky is that you can lose your grounding. Instead of freeing me, the high-rise life had unmoored me.

I’d been digging in the dirt all my life. I grew up on a South Georgia farm, had a greenhouse as a teenager, and enrolled at the University of Georgia to study horticulture. I ended up in the journalism school, but I never stopped loving plants. But at the Metropolis, we weren’t even allowed to have pots on our balconies, lest a pedestrian get wiped out by a crashing Japanese maple.

My saving grace was bulbs—they loved it up there! My condo was basically a terrarium, after all, with floor-to-ceiling windows and sunlight from dawn to dusk. I started spending lots of time at gardening centers, especially the late, great Smith & Hawken on Peachtree. I potted amaryllis bulbs, forced paper whites, and felt the sap of life slowly start to run through my veins again. I even figured out how to get my amaryllis to bloom again year after year: I’d stop watering, allow the plants to go dormant in a cool closet all summer, and repot them in the fall.

A farm boy at heart, I only lasted a few years at the Metropolis. But in that time, oddly enough, I reconnected with the outdoors and learned what it meant to be reborn. I quit drinking. I started running. And I began a search for a new home, one with a patch of dirt at my disposal.

When I put my sunlit perch on the market, no one seemed to find it odd that the bedroom I used as an office was filled with potted amaryllis. The unit sold quickly, and I found the perfect home: a 1913 Grant Park cottage, with a private garden for shade plants and a south-facing side yard for sun-lovers.

You see where this is going: bulbs, baby, bulbs. I put my amaryllis collection in beds and planted daffodils, jonquils, and hyacinths among the day lilies, irises, and evergreens. Sweet friends and neighbors picked up on my love of bulbs and shared their heirloom spider lilies and dainty grape hyacinths.

I still haven’t figured out tulips. But every fall, I stick a few more daffodils in the ground. And every winter, I revert to my old ways: I rush the season; I cheat a little. I raid the amaryllis bed for the fattest bulb I can find, pot it up, and watch it come to life in my sunny kitchen. My garden may be bleak and barren, but here in a single pot is the promise of spring and a chance to start over. Just like the old days. Only better. Not so forced.

Wendell Brock is an Atlanta-based writer and winner of a 2016 James Beard Award for profile writing.

This article appears in our Winter 2019 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.

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