By Emily Williams
Tucked away in a corner of Homewood’s Edgewood neighborhood, between blocks of houses, is a natural sanctuary that is a slice of Homewood history as well as an educational escape.
When Amy Milam was hired in 2018 as the sixth caretaker of Sims EcoScape, she also became the first full-time manager of the five-lot property.
Her job has been not only to maintain the land and plants that inhabit it, but to breathe new life into it while paying homage to the woman who started it all.
The late Catherine Sims, known around the neighborhood as The Plant Lady, was a staple of the local arts and gardening community. After she passed away in 2006, Sim’s will deeded her home at 908 Highland Road and four neighboring lots to the city of Homewood to become a community park and outdoor classroom.
Woven into the fabric of the garden’s layout is a mix of old and new, which Milam seeks to maintain as large-scale plans for landscape renovations begin.
As people walk along the paths, they will see plants that Sims herself planted among a variety that have been thoughtfully curated.
There are plant species with a little bit of history – antique roses hailing from the 1800s – and those that Sims created, such as a smooth hydrangea, which she propagated with the founder of Aldridge Gardens, Eddie Aldridge.
Edible plants are also a staple throughout the gardens.
Along the perimeter of a kitchen garden filled with vegetables and herbs are peach trees, which supplied a bountiful harvest mid-summer.
Fruiting plants include apple trees, a persimmon tree, blueberries and, most importantly, figs.
“That was one of the things that Miss Sims planted,” Milam noted. “There are four fig trees on the property.” In fact, they ripen at this time of year, proven as Milam plucked one right off the tree and ate it.
There are also nods to Sims love of education. Homewood resident Izzy Dettling installed Alabama’s first ozone monitoring garden this summer at Sims EcoScape for her Girl Scout Gold Award project. It features plants that show visible signs of sensitivity to increased amounts of pollutants in the air.
Taking care of all of the garden’s pollinating needs are a colony of honey bees that are managed by Alabama Sawyer owner Cliff Spencer, who lives right up the street.
A Redesign Was in Order
In 2011, after the gardens had fallen into disrepair due to overgrowth, the Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham-Southern College took over the management of Sims as one of several ecoscapes the center manages throughout the greater Birmingham area.
Small steps had been made in uncovering the garden’s potential over the years, but when Milam was hired, she decided it was time to enlist the help and financial support of the city of Homewood to finally create Sims’ vision for the land.
A discussion among members of city government, landscape designers and people who knew Sims, moderated by Aldridge Gardens Executive Director Rip Weaver, resulted in a plan designed by Goodwyn, Mills and Caywood.
Projects in the works now include making all of the pathways in the gardens ADA compliant.
“It’s hard to have events here or make money off of it when your grandmother can’t show up because she can’t get through here with her cane or wheelchair,” Milam said.
A paper alley along the right side of the property will be cleared and made into a path. Milam is even working on bringing in goats to clear part of the area that is covered in grass and brush to create the pathway as well as a playhouse village.
“There are no sidewalks on Irving or Highland roads, so I would love for this alley to be a safe walking space for kids, because they come from Homewood Middle School and cut through the garden or walk down the streets,” Milam said.
A lawn will be created where community movie nights can be held, and a section of brick pavers will be refurbished to form an area where outdoor classes can be conducted.
A great portion of Milam’s preparations have revolved around getting to know the gardens’ namesake a bit better.
“I have met so many people who knew (Sims), people who just stopped by the gardens while I was outside working, and I would learn something about her each time,” Milam said.
“I want to create an oral narrative of her life because I don’t know anything about her life before Homewood,” Milam said. “I do know a lot about her life from 1960 until now.”
She hopes to discover how Sims developed a love of gardening and nature, something she also shared with her two brothers. Ben and John Sims both were notable figures in Atlanta’s art and gardening scene.
“I think that is just something they must have learned from their mother or both of their parents,” Milam said. “They were very civically engaged, engaged in gardening and art and it sounds like a really cool family.”
The House Could Be Repurposed
All of her research will be used in the future in a historical display, perhaps in the house on the property once it is restored. Milam has heard that Sims imagined the house might be turned into an event space or museum.
“The house is pretty much the same as it was when it was built in 1927,” she said. The only change made was to enclose the large front porch and take over a portion of it to extend a front bedroom.
“Right now, I live in the house as a resident caretaker, but the goal is for the house to eventually be open for events,” Milam said.
That’s not to say it hasn’t already hosted events. The house has been the site of a wedding, and there have been book and garden clubs, as well as school field trips, in the gardens.
During the pandemic, children’s birthday parties have been hosted in the garden, including a fairy garden party and a pirate treasure hunt.
Now that the garden is shaping up and a plan is set, Milam has been generating ideas for fundraising opportunities.
From Sept. 12 through Oct. 31, the gardens will become a pumpkin patch. There will be pumpkins available of multiple sizes and colors, as well as a variety of mums and “mumpkins,” which are mums in pumpkin planters.
Festivities also will include a scarecrow trail, fall crafts and plenty of treats.
On Oct. 3, the gardens will host a Take-Home Tea Party, inspired by Sims.
“(Sims) had talked to some of her friends, who I have since talked to, and apparently she wanted to see the house maybe turned into a tea room at some point,” Milam said, noting that it would be logistically impossible.
When Milam discovered that Oct. 1 is Sims’ birthday, she knew she needed to organize a tea party fundraiser as a posthumous 105th birthday celebration.
Attendees can preorder tea for two supplied by Little London Kitchen at Sims Garden from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. on Oct. 3.
“I’m hoping that both of those will become traditions for Homewood and the surrounding communities,” Milam said.
For more information, visit the Sims Garden Facebook Page.