Escape to magical backyard hide-away

Friday, June 20, 2003 at 1:00am

What's in Kay's garden?
Kay Ruty has grown oddities like cucumber magnolia trees and a buckeye plant her grandfather started with a seed he brought back from the Civil War.

Both a place and a product of love, Kay Ruty's garden is a series of paths that lead visitors through several sitting areas, each marked by a hedge and trellis doorway. Photo by M.J. Masotti Jr.

When she and her cat, Toots, aren't sniffing and pruning their own plants, Ruty is somewhere in Nashville tending to someone else's.

This year, besides the 30,000 tulip bulbs she brought in from Holland, Ruty is featuring a brand-new plant, the "Sungoddess," a hydrangea that blooms bright pink against yellow leaves.

To reach Ruty, call 383-3620.

Kay Ruty's garden grows more magically than any other Nashville hide-away this writer has seen. Two wooden gates open to an English garden that is a fantasyland of color and life.

And, after watching Ruty in her garden, visitors know the spot is also a place of love, whose roots run deep - six generations back, to be precise.

"Oh my goodness, you're finally in bloom. You are beautiful," Ruty said, fingering the pastel-colored bloom of a plant Ruty had almost forgotten she'd even brought here.

Most of the greenery in Ruty's garden is not as young, however. She doesn't give an exclamation of surprise, but a "hello dear" and a smile usually reserved for old friends and pets when she walks past the rose bushes that have been there since her grandmother planted them a century ago.

Now, Ruty's 8-year-old granddaughter plays in the family's garden, named "The Terraces." She makes flower stew, and has made her grandmother swear to keep all the garden's passageways secret.

"She used to walk behind me as a toddler, and yell, 'hide and go seek,' and just run off," Ruty said. "Used to scare the life outta me."

No wonder, since adults get lost in the garden themselves. Ruty's creation is the classic English style indeed: a series of stone paths that lead visitors through several sitting areas, each marked by a hedge and trellis doorway.

Behind one, a swing. Behind another, a pond where Ruty goes to "sip gin" with her goldfish. Behind every one, a surprise and a newcomer's gasp - just the way Ruty, known in Nashville as "the Gardener's Gardner," likes it.

Ruty prefers to call her English Garden a "grandmother's garden," and no name could fit better. Just like the grandmother who nurses each child with equal but tailored love, Ruty knows her plants. She knows when they will bloom and when they will rest.

This, says Ruty, is the secret to an English garden. You need stone paths, hedges and archways, and you must let a bit of everything grow in its own time.

Of course, the new gardener will not any time soon grow the collection Ruty's grandmother passed on to her. But they can start with even five, she said.

"First, I'd start with bulbs," Ruty said. Bulbs, no matter where they are planted, will always bloom in the same order. Hyacinths will come first, then daffodils, then tulips.

Plant them in clusters of five or three so you can prune without losing all the bloom at once.

"You can't kill day lilies," Ruty said of her second plant choice. "I remember that one blooming in the 1940s," she said, pointing to one of her own.

An iris will bloom in May, shortly before the lilly will. Ruty's fourth choice, phlox, is a tall-stemmed plant that blooms in all colors mid-summer. Her fifth recommendation, a perennial hibiscus, will bloom through even the hottest part of Tennessee summers.

Every gardener should mix perennials with annuals to ensure their gardens will always have some color, Ruty said.

"And make sure you get your plants from a nursery. You have to know where they come from. If they were grown well, you'll have a chance. Otherwise it's so disappointing to lose a plant you just loved."

As Ruty assumes the role of her grandmother and in turn watches her own granddaughter play in The Terraces, it's clear that the real secret to maintaining this paradise is one that flows through the veins of those women: love.

"The best way to see a garden is to see it through the eyes of a child," Ruty said. "It's pure magic."