Neal Postman said “Our children are the message we send to a generation we will never see.” Tom Corley has spent the last 18 years preparing his message for the generations ahead.Some people say quality offspring is all in the genes. Others say it’s not breeding but environment. While Corley and wife Mary have two fine, adult children, another Corley legacy has family names like Rhodie, Camellia and Azalea.Paying careful attention to genetics and environment with an extra measure of time and patience, Corley has created a garden retreat in the woods of Loachapoka that almost everyone in the Lee County-Auburn area has heard about. It is a private garden, but is public by invitation with about a thousand guests per year. And even more people enjoy the garden through Corley’s slide shows or in the new book, Alabama Gardens Great and Small, by Givhan and Greer.Tom Corley is not creating a namesake–that was accomplished when Auburn University recently named the Biosystems Engineering Building in his honor. The building stands as a monument, not to Corley’s gardening ability, but rather to his 36 years of noteworthy service to Auburn.In the first 18 years of his career in Auburn’s Agricultural Engineering Department, Corley made his greatest impact in the area of cotton mechanization. Jack Smith, former head of Information Services for the Cooperative Extension Service said “Tom Corley was a very productive professor and researcher. He came along at a time when the cotton industry was in real need of innovation and mechanization and was a great help to Alabama farmers.”The next 18 years of Corley’s career were spent directing the outlying units of the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station. Under his guidance, the research network grew to almost 25,000 acres scattered across 16 locations throughout Alabama, including the addition of the E.V. Smith Research Center on Interstate 85 in Shorter. This highly visible, 3,000-acre farm remains the flagship location for agricultural research in the state.The same attention to detail that successful engineers like Corley are known for has had another focus in recent years. In Loachapoka, the only building that will bear his name is the log cabin he began to move there in 1982 from just outside Alexander City, some 40 miles away. Corley meticulously marked each log on site, tore the cabin apart and reassembled it piece by piece in the center of this 16-acre garden nestled between two lakes. Although Corley seems to take little time for fishing, he admits knowing that the lakes are well stocked. He claims the fish bite so good he has to hide behind a tree to bait his hook. But, he comes here to garden, not fish.As might be expected of an engineer, Corley says he laid out the 1,500 deciduous azaleas and 1,300 camellias in straight lines. However, the lines are lost in the ruffled edges of azaleas and mounds of rhododendrons. The lines blur into seas of color in several seasons of the year–most notably the spring, but with continued impact right up to frost. The crooks and crannies, hills and dales, pockets and paths of Corley’s garden sanctuary create a flow and ripple that appears so natural that one would assume it was just created that way.While the physical work did not begin until the early 1980s, perhaps the dream began as early as 1959 when Corley and a few other men in the Auburn area founded the Auburn/Opelika Men’s Camellia Club. The club continues to meet monthly on campus and at various members’ homes.In a daily routine that includes three newspapers and a generous supply of coffee, Corley spends as much as eight hours a day in and out of the garden. Often, Mary joins him for the day. Although the cabin is a warm and inviting retreat, Mrs. Corley reminds him, “I grew up in a cabin like this, and don’t plan on living in this one.” So, after a day that might include guests from Pennsylvania to Miami, the Corleys make their way back to their home in Auburn.Corley is quite a plantsman and skilled at the art of propagation, from hybridizing azaleas and camellias to grafting. He has systematically grafted about 50 camellias each year for almost two decades, placing desirable cultivars on seedlings whose blooms or forms were without the special features Corley expects out of a “keeper” from seed. After evaluating over 1,300 camellias from seed through the years, Corley has decided that at least one ‘keeper’ will be released in the years ahead as a selection he intends to name ‘Mary Corley’.Through the years, he has given much to the Auburn area. From his garden he has provided hundreds of plants for many of the Auburn city parks, local churches and schools. In his garden, he has provided inspiration for many to “go and do likewise.” One way he continues to impact Auburn students is by hosting several classes from across campus.Lee Simmons, a master’s student in plant pathology said “this is one of the most incredible gardens in east Alabama.” Beth Clendendon, an instructor in the Department of Horticulture uses Corley’s garden for as many as three classes a year. “We bring landscape gardening students out to help them see the way a well-planned garden can look at maturity,” she said. “I can bring the herbaceous plant materials class here and see almost every plant we cover in the whole course.” For many in the Auburn area, Loachapoka is best known for the fall Syrup Soppin’ Festival with good eating, bluegrass and a good measure of nostalgia about days gone by. But just down the road a bit is a garden where a man has a focus on the future. It is a special treat to travelers looking for the fragrance of native azaleas–a legacy of flowers and greenery that shows the heart of a man with a steady drive to leave things better than he found them.EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeff Sibley is an associate horticulture professor at Auburn University.
A Gardener’s Legacy