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Allan Armitage and the joys of gardening

Loran Smith

Administrative assistant, UGAFootball Club

It is a good thing that the dastardly virus has brought about a tsunami of lawn and garden patronage, a reminder that sometimes it requires dark hours to bring about the realization that energy and industry can be powerful game-changers in our lives, especially in times of challenge. Whatever your burdens, whatever your issues — getting outdoors can make a difference.

Just ask Allan Armitage, retired University of Georgia horticulturist. It would be difficult to imagine a man who has enjoyed more fulfillment in life. Much of that comes from having been a proponent of digging in the dirt. Gardening, he says, will help us get through this.

In the last fortnight or two, maybe more, I have read two of his books, “Of Naked Ladies and Forget-Me-Nots,” and “It’s Not Just About the Hat,” which made me appreciate his work and life story. With an engaging and inquiring mind, he has a resume that overwhelms. He has always had a bent for reaching out and touching life and its treasures. His hallmark is adapting to life’s vicissitudes. He gets up every day, expecting to learn something new, which makes him a beacon in a sedentary world.

Beholding the spectacular gardens of the world, which became an abiding passion, meant he connected with the Vatican, the Parthenon, the Louvre, Pompeii, the Alhambra, the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Wall and vineyards in between. He and his had the good fortune to live for a spell in New Zealand, a gardener’s wonderland. 

Born in Mount Royal, suburb of Montreal, he experienced a middle-class life with parents underscoring enterprise, insightful encouragement and daily bread. 

Allan and his brother Howard played games as the seasons dictated: baseball, basketball, and as you would expect, hockey. What Canadian kid did not? That affinity for the outdoors, even when snow was knee-deep, segued into a love of gardens and brought about a green thumb, which coddled and sustained him.

Born with an extra helping of wanderlust, his life has become an exciting journey in which he has made things grow, gained inspiration from travel and ingesting landscapes. With the help of his lovely wife Susan, he has connected with people and places that have enabled them from their marriage in 1968, to live happily ever after. 

The Armitage’s arrived in Athens in 1980, a very good year.  While he identified with big-time football and basketball at Michigan State as a graduate student (he witnessed Magic Johnson’s years as a student-athlete), Allan never could have imagined what an experience game day between-the-hedges would be like, especially when he saw grandmothers barking following a Herschel Walker jaunt to the end zone.

As a tennis aficionado he was honored with an introduction to Georgia’s iconic coach Dan Magill, who introduced him to Vince Dooley, whose love of gardening was as intense as Allan’s, if not as seasoned and studied. A member of the Clarke-Oconee Tennis Association, Allan’s gang won the National Seniors championship in 2018, the same year brother Howard won the World Masters Squash Championship.

The “publish or perish” dictum fit compellingly in his wheelhouse. He has written over 70 academic papers, 500 industry papers and 16 books. You get the drift that he could type with one hand while digging with the other.

One of his most rewarding initiatives was developing a trial garden behind Snelling Hall on UGA’s South campus where invaluable research has taken place, a signature research outdoor laboratory that has brought immeasurable value to the horticultural industry. However, he fears that some dean or administrator will someday find it the perfect place for a parking deck.

If you don’t identify him by his works, look for his hat. He wears broad brim Tilley hats, which are almost as good as a cloud when the sun is bearing down. Allan is an international personality, universally regarded for his expertise and, of course, the hat. That hat, a Canadian product, helped him conquer Georgia’s heat, which led him and Susan to abandon their plan to try the South only for a couple of years. 

Canada’s deep freeze weather, which he grew up in, was not a bother, but five months of it! When is enough, enough? He has found a home where he can dig in the dirt when it is hottest. In Canadian winters, to dig, you need a pickaxe.

The Armitage’s took a run-down shack in the Five Points community in Athens and gave it a botanical face-lift, added birdhouses and are exhilarated by the changing seasons, all in full view of a small flag which features the maple leaf in familiar red. Wine and conversation on their deck in late afternoon is a rich experience.

The perfect sign-off for this treatise is Allan Armitage is most appreciative of having been a loyal and devoted teacher for decades, appreciating what Henry Adams, an accomplished educator, once said: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”