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Golden gardener: Groves' story a bouquet of greatness

Photo by Michael Buckelew

Photo by Michael Buckelew

OXFORD -- Sara Groves' life story sounds like the plot for a movie -- a biopic about a woman who crammed more into one lifetime than most could in five.

But if you ask Groves, she'll say her life is more like a garden than a movie. Her philosophy -- "Life is a 50-acre garden -- get busy!" was the title of a presentation on her life given Wednesday afternoon at Merryvale Assisted Living in Oxford, where Groves now resides. The presentation was to honor Groves and to coincide with Women's History Month and National Nutrition Month.

Now 94, Groves can look back on a life thoroughly lived: She flew with Amelia Earhart, rode horses with Gen. George S. Patton, and invented a gardening technique that has spread nationwide. Those are just a few of the highlights.

Here are the details, as given by her good friend and "gardening buddy" Doug Reynolds. Groves was born in Georgia on Jan. 1, 1916. As a child, she was encouraged by her mother to go outside and study plants and then discuss them with Jack, the character from the children's tale, "Jack and the Beanstalk."

"She encouraged Sara to take note of the differences in the various plants and to study the ways in which the colors complemented or enhanced each other. Then she was to come back and discuss with her mother the things her imagination had revealed to her in her discussion with Jack," Reynolds said. "Sara vividly remembers that her favorite color at the time was yellow and all of her perceptions of flower color revolved around how well they went with yellow. Little did she and her mother know that they were laying the groundwork for a life in horticulture that would not blossom until many years later."

Groves' first brush with a legend occurred when she was not yet a teenager. In 1928, she took a short flight with Amelia Earhart, the same year the famed aviator became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Earhart was a friend of a family member. Groves' uncle arranged the flight with Earhart for 25 cents.

"She was just a joy to know for such a short time. I didn't fly too far with her, but I felt very honored to be with her," Groves said.

In 1937, Groves graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor of science degree in home economics and chemistry. She went on to earn an internship in management and therapeutic dietetics at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and completed her master's degree in management and her certification as a registered dietitian at the University of Chicago.

Groves then joined the staff at Duke University Hospital in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., as administrative dietitian and an instructor of nutrition to Duke medical students.

In 1940, she met and married Air Force 1st Lt. John Groves. They married in the home of three-time Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge. John Groves had been a roommate of Talmadge's son, the future U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge.

John Groves was assigned to Fort Benning and his wife took a job at the hospital there as chief administrative dietitian. It was also at Fort Benning that she struck up a friendship with Patton.

The two met at the officers club, and over scotch they discovered a mutual interest in horses. They went horseback riding together several times. On one of those occasions, Groves took a nasty spill. When the horse righted itself, she was still in the saddle, to Patton's amusement. He exclaimed, "(Expletive), I like that woman. She's got a hard head!"

Groves' reputation at Fort Benning garnered a request by the War Department for her to work as the food services executive on the Manhattan Project. She oversaw all meal planning and preparation for the scientists developing the atomic bomb.

Even her husband, at that time in England preparing for the European invasion, did not know what she was doing.

In 1946, Groves received a commendation from the War Department Manhattan District for "work essential to the production of the atomic bomb, thereby contributing to the successful conclusion of World War II."

Groves would go on to work at the University of Houston as food services director, where she helped Jack Valenti, at that time president of the alumni association, develop and market Uncle Ben's Rice and Comet Rice.

Through Valenti, Groves met Lady Bird and future president Lyndon B. Johnson, whom she visited at their ranch several times.

In 1955, she was hired by Texas A&M University as food services consultant and instructor of corrective exercises for the football team under Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.

When someone noted that Groves seemed to be in the right places at the right times to meet so many famous folks, she responded, "I think I made it the right time. I always searched out the most handsome men."

In 1956, John Groves was assigned to Ladd Air Force base in Fairbanks, Alaska. Groves became an extension agent with the University of Alaska and anchored a one-hour television program there for four years.

Upon her husband's retirement from the Air Force in 1961, the couple moved to Oxford and Groves established Florascape Design, a business she maintained for 16 years.

"Her business was founded on the concept that there was a latent demand in the American public for instant garden color," said Reynolds. "She believed that many homeowners loved color in the landscape, had money to spend, and were, as Sara puts it, 'lazy as hell.'

"She encouraged the movement away from string-bundled pansies, wooden flats, and flowers in one-inch cell packs to four-inch pots. In fact, she had to get the container manufacturers to mold the four-inch pots as they were not available at that time."

Groves and her friend Bud Heist, owner of Heistaway Nurseries in Conyers, were the primary instigators of this dramatic conceptual change in florascaping, which quickly spread from residential to commercial use and can now be seen all over the country. Groves was recognized by The American Horticultural Society for her efforts. Groves provided plants or did design work for such well-known sites as Six Flags Over Georgia, Callaway Gardens and Walt Disney World.

From 1980 to 1985, she was employed by the Georgia Institute of Technology as horticulturist in charge of all turf and flowers on campus. In 1989, she became administrative horticulturist for the city of Atlanta and was supported by Mayor Andrew Young in her idea that Atlanta must have an aggressive beautification program in order to present the proper appearance on the world stage. She would go on to work with Young again in his successful efforts to bring the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta, and helped develop and design the equestrian site for the games.

In 2003, Groves was honored by the Atlanta History Center as one of Atlanta's Defining Women, along with Coretta Scott King and Jane Fonda.

The last few years prior to moving into Merryvale, she devoted much of her time to maintaining a thriving and beautiful garden on her half-acre lot in Oxford, where Reynolds estimates she may have thousands of plants. She also maintained the largest holly collection in the country there.

"Sara says that she mulches with plants. She also tells her plants not to get too comfortable because more than likely they'll be moved three or four times before they get to settle in and find a place to call home," Reynolds said.

Groves attributes much of her gardening success to an unlikely assistant: worms.

"I did everything I possibly could to glorify worms; nothing was wasted at my house. There was always food for the worms. They're one of the most wonderful things we have for gardening," she said.

Groves' sister, niece and nephew were on hand for support Wednesday. Her niece, Rosanna Lamb, said she learned determination from her aunt.

"She told me, 'If you can read, you can do anything. I wanted to learn to cook, and she said, 'Well, you can read, can't you?' That always gave me a lot of confidence because I always thought, they have to have a book on it somewhere."

That can-do attitude is especially remarkable because Groves lived in an era when women, especially military wives, were expected to remain in the background.

"Wherever she went, in spite of being female, she blew the doors off," Reynolds said.

For Groves, it's been quite a ride.

"It's been fun. I've had the privilege of knowing so many different people and living so many different places," she said.