A winning Kentucky Derby style includes fast horses and fancy hats, combined with a soft-spoken Southern gentility and the pastoral charm of the rolling Bluegrass.
Most of us interested observers celebrate the big race on the first Saturday in May for a day or two, but for equine veterinarian Dede McGehee, it's part of her life, nurtured and interwoven in her work, home and garden.
Her farm — Heaven Trees — is the birthplace of 2010 Eclipse horse of the year Rachel Alexandra and is within walking distance of Keeneland.
Although McGehee built her home just a decade ago, it appears to have been in place for a century. The interior of the Queen Anne Victorian mansion features a hand-made open wooden staircase, wide hallways and so many windows that it seems as if the walls are decorated with the great outdoors. It's surrounded by a constellation of farm buildings, including Thoroughbred mare barns and a hen house she calls her palais des poulets, or poultry palace. All are painted in "peachy-pink," a spectacularly striking shade that McGehee loves.
"Depending on the light at different times of day, it varies from deep salmon to a light rose," she says. Along with the pea-green kitchen paint and the morning room with William Morris Arts and Crafts floral print wallpaper, McGehee's organic color scheme is echoed in her pink-and-green racing silks, and in large-scale "zinnia" and "pinwheel" quilt-block design paintings she has created and hung on her barns.
The house, encircled by a wide covered porch and topped by third-story glassed-in turrets, sits among 400 or so trees and shrubs that McGehee and Louisville landscape architect — or as she describes him, "tree god" — John Swintosky have chosen.
Unique specimen trees, such as the tri-color beech, whose leaves have a purple cast, and even the unusual Heptacodium miconioides, a large shrub with deep rose-colored fall bracts that match the house color, attest to McGehee's serious penchant for flora.
"We took tree field trips to places like Klehm's Song Sparrow Perennial Farm in Wisconsin and Don Shadow's nursery in Tennessee, as well as locally to the Lexington Cemetery, to explore possibilities," she says. "In determining where to plant the trees for a perfect setting, we used our vantage point up in the third-floor turret."
The view provides a sweeping vista of mares and foals in the pastures of her 120-acre farm and a view of the enormous vegetable garden, which is enclosed by a wrought-iron fence, with tidy beds delineated by limestone rock borders.
In recent years, McGehee has become such an ardent gardener that she is now studying through the National Garden Club to qualify as a flower show judge. She has won blue ribbons, and a rainbow of other colors, for vegetable entries at the county level and the Kentucky State Fair. All are proudly displayed on her refrigerator door.
As a child in Jacksonville, Fla., McGehee was "animal crazed," bringing critters home, much to her parents' dismay. Orphaned squirrels, a pig, a pony and riding horses made their way into her life. When she received her degree as a veterinarian, her father had her diploma copied onto a wallet-size, laminated card that she could carry because he thought people wouldn't believe she was a vet.
"That way, I could prove I was bona fide and certified," she says with a laugh.
In the process, she has redefined her focus. She has concentrated her equine practice on foals and older mares, keeping about 25 on the farm. She sometimes names her foals for flowers, including Mayhaw, after a tree with fruit that her grandmother used to make jelly, and Alcea, the Latin name for hollyhock. She has a marmalade-yellow cat, lounging under her back portico, and two Boston terriers and a corgi guarding the door and greeting guests.
With a flock of chickens wandering the garden, and beds planted with vegetables, herbs and flowers, there is a wholesome goodness at Heaven Trees. An occasional loud clucking from the garden prompts McGehee to chuckle with delight. "Someone must have laid an egg!"
She scoots around the farm on a green John Deere Gator, a tool of the trade for someone who finds it rewarding to work on the business end of a horse.
But there is still a bit of the belle in McGehee's life. A room in her house is dedicated to an impressive collection of lavishly decorated, broad-brimmed Derby hats, hanging on racks and piled high in round designer hat boxes. The pastel appeal of Monet's garden graces one. A hat covered completely by red rose blossoms, and one topped with a cote of white doves are two of her favorites.
Entertaining garden club friends with tea, poured into antique fancy floral china cups, and coaxing begonias and African violets into bloom also hold a place of high value. McGehee has created her own personal run for the roses, dahlias, zinnias, basil, tomatoes and peppers every day at Heaven Trees.
Reach master gardener Susan Smith-Durisek at firstname.lastname@example.org.