Tending a garden of delights for 45 years

Forty five years ago, Patricia Collins set out to work in the garden, and she’s been at it ever since. And who can blame her, when the garden is Callaway, the 13,000-acre natural attraction in southwest of Atlanta?

The South Carolina native and Agnes Scott College graduate studied horticulture at the University of Georgia. She was first introduced to the Callaway Gardens countryside as an intern -- a job that became a full-time position after graduation.

“And it’s really the only job I’ve ever had,” said Collins.

Though she’s never left the grounds, Collins has held a variety of positions during her 45-year tenure. Her first stint was tending to the greenhouses and wildflower trail, followed by several years in the education department. She eventually took on the task of overseeing the gardens’ volunteer staff. Today, her formal title is Director of Gardens.

“I always tell people, it’s never been dull or boring,” said Collins with a laugh. “I’m not saying every day is wonderful -- I’m not sure there is a job like that! And there is a bit of a routine to it because there are things you have to do on a yearly basis. But between dealing with the plants, the people and the weather, there’s always something different.”

Collins has witnessed significant changes to the gardens over the years. Some of the biggest were the additions of new facilities such as the Sibley Horticultural Center and the Day Butterfly center.

“And now, we’re adding a real estate arm, so you can buy homes in certain areas and live at Callaway full-time,” said Collins. “That’s taking us back to the Callaways' original intent, so we’ve come full circle.”

Along with an exciting job in a beautiful setting, another feature that anchored Collins to the Callaway Gardens area was her husband, Mabry, a retired Baptist minister with whom she raised two children.

“I was single when I came here and met him," she said. "He had this little country church in Hamilton, about seven miles south of the gardens. Mrs. Callaway always brought her visitors there, so you never knew who’d be at church. I remember once she introduced us to Lady Bird Johnson.”

Collins has found inspiration not only in her work, but in the Callaway commitment to conservation and environmental stewardship.

“I believe in the mission of Callaway Gardens -- connecting man and nature in a way that benefits both,” she said. “That makes me feel good and makes me happy. I enjoy what I do; I love cultivating things, especially native plants, and I love preserving the habitat here. And at this time of the year, I get to drive through this wonderful woodland and see the flowers, the berries, the birds without breathing in any smog. It’s pretty neat.”

And it’s not an experience Collins plans to give up anytime soon.

“As long as I have a halfway decent brain and a mobile body, I don’t want to retire,” she said. “It’s fun here. I’ll always love seeing the people and enjoying the gardens.”

"Milestones" covers significant events and times in the lives of metro Atlantans. Big or small, well-known or not -- tell us of a Milestone we should write about. Send information to hm_cauley@yahoo.com; call 404-514-6162; or mail to Milestones, c/o Jamila Robinson, 223 Perimeter Center Parkway N.E., Atlanta, GA 30346.