For someone so involved with the world of gardening and plants, I’ve been on remarkably few garden open days, tours of multiple residential gardens in an area open to the public for one or a few days. I can count them on one hand: St. Genevieve Historic Society Garden Tour (2008), St. Louis Garden Conservancy Open Day (2012), NGS Shoreditch Garden Open Day (2017). For the most part, it’s been a location issue. I’ve mostly lived in smaller communities in the southeast without a strong tradition of local garden open days. Besides, as a professional designer and plant geek, I often get to visit residential gardens when they’re not open to the general public.
So, when I heard that the Chattanooga chapter of national naturalist group Wild Ones were putting on a tour of local gardens, I slapped on some sunscreen, pulled on my garden tour sneakers (the ones with limes, coconuts & dendrobium orchids printed on), and ventured out to see what was growing in local gardens.
First stop was the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, the only non-residential garden on the tour. I’m always interested most in gardens that respond to their greater context, whether through contrast (Lurie Garden) or through integration (Beth Chatto’s Garden). The institute sits in a wonderful low-lying site within the Tennessee River floodplain, with the river to the west, Signal Mountain to the north, and Stringers Ridge to the east. Local landscape architects W.M. Whitaker & Associates approached the site with sensitivity and care. You approach the Institute through a low-key gravel drive that winds through a wonderful meadow which, in early September, was billowing with Vernonia, Eupatorium & Solidago.
The butterflies were nearly as happy as I was to be drifting through this phenomenal damp meadow of head-high native wildflowers. The ratio of forbes to grasses seemed really high, but that enhanced the feeling of walking through a field of flowers. It'll be interesting to see how that balance changes over time.
Behind the building, an intense stormwater garden demonstrates the aesthetic and functional potential of green infrastructure. The central basin is filled with rushes, lobelia, shrubby dogwoods, and other damp-loving plants. Designer Matt Whitaker was on hand to answer specific questions. It would have been useful to have a few posted times for a garden walkthrough with designers or caretakers, so nerds like me interested guests could get a deeper knowledge of the design intent and management practices. Overall, this site was really beautiful and an exciting exploration of naturalistic design based in regional native plant palettes.
After this very generous, outward-facing garden that blended seamlessly into its landscape context, it was interesting to note that the residential gardens all seemed mostly inward-facing, despite some fantastic settings. My favorite of the residential gardens was an intimate set of clearings in the forest, surrounding a low wooden house with spreading wooden decks. The planting at this garden wasn’t particularly inspiring. There were some great large specimens of native trees and shrubs, but the perennials were pretty patchy.
But the space that I’d want to return to again and again was the gravel terrace right off the back of the house. With the narrow winding paths and fanciful structures, this terrace felt like a fantastic place to live in a little bit of sun and shade, sheltered by two chunky blocks of magnolia. Just add a pitcher of sangria and you’ll never get me to leave.
One of the widest plant palettes was to be found in a sunny garden atop Lookout Mountain, just across the way from the summit station of the once-famous Lookout Mountain Incline Railroad. You had to pay extra for parking there, $9.00 an hour - almost the cost of the garden tour ticket for the day. The owners of this garden are dedicated plantspeople. They own property in several states and have an eclectic collection of plants, primarily seed-grown individuals of regional native species. I had the opportunity to listen in on a walkthrough of this site with the owner, which offered some great insight on the mismatch between the hyperbolic claims of many native plant proponents and the realities of getting any planting figured out and established. The conversations with gardeners and guests at this property reinforced to me how easy it is for those of us who work in horticulture to make assumptions about our guests/clients - and how unhelpful those assumptions are. I don’t look like the typical garden tour guest. I can only imagine how many potential garden enthusiasts have stopped gardening after been treated condescendingly or weirdly in their encounters at garden tours and businesses.
After this open, sunny collectors’ garden, I was excited to visit another garden in the woods on Signal Mountain. This gardener had a wonderful way of using large masses of woodland plants to create elegant waves of green beneath an open forest canopy. I was particularly excited to see large drifts of Carex plantaginea. I’m looking forward to using this plant in local gardens for its phenomenal texture.
One of the most unusual features of this garden was its labyrinth, made of stones interplanted with wild ginger (Asarum canadense). I’d never seen this plant used in such a graphic way before, but it was highly effective. Unfortunately, the light by this time was splotchy and overhead, resulting in a poor image quality. I didn’t get to join in on an owner walkthrough at this garden, either - I’d have been interested to hear how the garden was developed. It definitely felt designed, rather than piecemeal. This garden was also heavily cluttered with metal plant labels. I can see how labels could be useful in a garden open situation, saving the owner from having to answer 500 plant ID questions. I hate them. To me, they detract from the aesthetic experience of a garden.
So, overall, I’m pretty proud of Chattanooga for this garden tour. It was an excellent idea to open the gardens in early autumn when so many of the charismatic megaflora are in full bloom. Thank you, Wild Ones, for opening your gardens. I’ve seen what’s been done here. Now it’s time to get my hands in the soil and start making some gardens of my own.