Percy’s Garden

Bridging the generations

BY Carrie Seck

Steve McMillan
Steve McMillan

When Bess and P.R. Smith chose to build a garden on five acres along Burnt Mill Creek in 1941, Charles Gillette, a renowned landscape architect from Richmond, Virginia, was brought in for the job. Azaleas and camellias abounded in the multiple spaces he created on the property at 615 Forest Hills Drive. 

Twelve years later, Bess Smith founded the Cape Fear Garden Club in her carport and became its first president. One of the initial orders of business was to create the Azalea Garden Tour. Eight gardens were on display in 1953, and the Smiths’ was host to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

On April 14, the 70th annual Azalea Garden Tour will begin at the now historical landscape, returning for another ribbon-cutting ceremony. 

“The Garden Club is always thrilled to be back here because we feel like this is the birthplace of the Azalea Garden Tour,” says Elaine Henson, Cape Fear Garden Club past president.


The Smiths hosted the start of the Azalea Festival with the inaugural Garden Tour ribbon-cutting event.


50 years later, it was the ribbon-cutting garden to launch the Azalea Festival and Garden Tour.


70 years after the first event, theirs is once again the selected garden to begin the annual festival. 

Smelling the flowers is Bess Newton Smith’s great granddaughter, Eliza, at grandparents Lillian and Percy Smith’s Forest Hills Drive garden in March 2023. Steve McMillan

Percy Smith Jr. and his wife, Lillian James Smith, moved onto the property in 1980. Bess Smith was in her late 70s and the garden needed a wee bit of help.

“It was pretty, but there was ivy everywhere,” Lillian says. 

With help, she did a lot of pruning before planting began anew.

The Smiths regard their role as caretakers of the garden. Over the years they have added countless flowers and trees, including hollies, hydrangeas, dogwoods and boxwoods. A couple of oak trees will be added this year.

Lillian’s aunt, Frances Armstrong of Covington, Virginia, was very involved with the Virginia Daffodil Society and would send bulbs annually, all of which Lillian planted around the property. One of Percy’s employees at Cape Fear Ford would bring Lillian a bluebird house every year; they can be spotted throughout the garden.

Lillian did a lot of designing from the windows. She would look out and think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a big urn out there?” She moved a fountain — the subject of the 2003 Azalea Festival poster — from inside to an area on the patio to make it a focal point.

A porch was added for easier access to the garden; it also happens to provide an unbelievable view of the grounds and wildlife. Hawks, owls, foxes, squirrels, and even otters and beavers have made the garden their home.

The Smiths’ garden has seen a lot of changes since that first Garden Tour 70 years ago. When Lillian and Percy took on the role of next-generation caretakers, “There was such a canopy of trees you couldn’t see a plane fly over.” That canopy is now at least 100 large trees thinner due to storms over the past 43 years.

Hurricanes Bertha, Fran, Florence and Floyd caused the most damage. An oyster roast was once situated between two oak trees, but Fran sent those trees right through the kitchen window (just barely missing Lillian). Florence alone took out 42 trees.

Community access to the garden is a tradition, not just during large and small events, but for neighbors in Forest Hills. 

“It’s not just the Smith garden, it’s really the neighborhood garden,” Lillian says.

She has continued her mother-in-law’s tradition of putting out a welcome sign each spring and provides a self-guided tour for neighbors.

“People look for that welcome sign to come out so they can come through the garden,” says Henson.

Lillian tells the story from years ago, when the family came home from church to discover a couple had just become engaged in what the Smiths called the sixth garden, a private area enclosed by trees with a circle of bricks and two benches.

The garden, which feels like a park in the middle of the city, has been host to more than just the ribbon-cutting over the years. The preamble to the Airlie Garden Party began there as a barbecue; it moved to Airlie when it grew too large. There have been wedding receptions for the couple’s daughters, and visits from children at Forest Hills Elementary, who loved to roam through the garden and go back and forth across its six bridges.

A contestant on Wheel of Fortune, who won a trip to the Azalea Festival in 2003 came through the garden and loved the poem written for Mr. Smith Sr. and inscribed on a stone so much she asked for a copy, which Lillian graciously provided.

The Historic Wilmington Foundation’s fundraiser there in 2004 was its largest to date.

Anchoring the garden is a stone engraved with this poem (author unknown) installed in 1952 for P.R. Smith. The poem was also read during the Percy Smith Jr. service. Steve McMillan

At cool of day with God I walk
my garden’s grateful shade.
I hear his voice among the trees
and I am not afraid.
He speaks to me in every wind,
he smiles from every star;
he is not deaf to me, nor blind,
nor absent, nor afar.
His hand that shuts the flowers to sleep
each day in its dewy fold,
is strong my feeble life to keep,
and competent to hold.
The powers below and powers above
are subject to his care.
I cannot wander from his love
who loves me everywhere.
Thus dowered and guarded this with him
I walk that peaceful shade,
I hear his voice among the trees
and I am not afraid.

                 — P.R. Smith Memorial Garden


  1. Tiz Garner on April 3, 2023 at 12:14 am

    Beautiful Beautiful Lillian, so many memories to have …

  2. Susan Wain on March 31, 2023 at 7:39 pm

    Love it, such bliss. Susan Wain

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