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Golden Flowers
A hobby blooms into a nationally-known business in the Tennessee hills

Secret Gardens
The wildest, prettiest places just under Knoxville's nose

Yard Work
UT's trial gardens are growing like a weed

Getting Dirty
Beardsley Farm teaches people how food grows

You already know the why — here's the who, what, and where

  Secret Gardens

The wildest, prettiest places just under Knoxville's nose

by Jack Neely

With fertile soil and a healthy rainfall, Knoxville's naturally one of the greenest cities in America. Knoxville was also the adolescent home of English-born author Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden, a title that has inspired a springtime tour of selected private gardens. It would seem to have the makings of a garden city.

The history of Knoxville gardens is almost too sad to relate. Between 1870 and 1930 or so, more than 20 carefully designed formal gardens sprang up around town. The ballustraded Tyson gardens on Temple, Thomas O'Conner's Melrose nearby, the Italian-style Belcaro grounds in Fountain City, the C.J. McClung gardens right on Main Street, the Bonnyman gardens on Kingston Pike, the grounds of Weston Fulton's estate on Lyon's View, the terraced gardens of Talahi, Alfred Sanford's grand arboretum at Boxwood, the gardens of Perez Dickinson's Island Home. Some were open to the public, and all were well-known in their day, even the subject of Knoxville postcards.

But none of those mentioned still exist. They've been redeveloped to less troublesome uses, simplified to more manageable lawns, and in some cases even paved over. Often, a garden's life span is the same as the life span of the person who started it. The gardener dies, as all gardeners must, and then the garden dies.

At least one garden from Knoxville's Green Age survives: marble tycoon John Craig's 1928 garden on Craigland Court, just off Westland Drive near Fourth Creek, is well-tended by prominent attorney and man-about-town Tom McAdams. The restored garden is a regular stop on the annual Secret Gardens tour.

Though Knoxville capitalist William Cary Ross's mansion, Rostrevor, was demolished in 1969, and much of Ross's old grounds, including the wildflower garden, were flattened for Cherokee Country Club's tennis courts and other projects, Rostrevor's once-famous garden is still intact.

It's in the backyard of Ross' grandson, Sandy McNabb. The house isn't visible from Lyon's view, up a driveway that winds through thick natural brush. Even behind McNabb's house, if you're standing 50 feet away from it, you might not guess it's there. But walk into the 70-year-old thicket of very tall bamboo, and there's a big, elaborately wrought iron gate. Then, a path between huge boxwoods leads to an elaborate series of terraces leading down to a sunken garden plot like a wading pool, with a stage of sorts beyond. It looks like a Greek amphitheatre.

In its heyday, the Rostrevor Garden has hosted elaborate dinner parties and family wedding receptions, and was the subject of two Knoxville postcards. The McNabb says some of the daffodils, sylla, and other flowers just coming up now are rising from the original bulbs that have been there for decades. But Mrs. Ross originally had a schedule of planting dozens of varieties of annuals to make the garden a chaos of color throughout the warm months. Maintaining the garden to Mrs. Ross's standards would require full-time maintenance.

"It's our romantic ruin," says McNabb's wife, Helen.

Gardens take a lot of time and effort to build, and a lot of time and effort to maintain. A garden can go to ruin during a two-week vacation. Even endangered historic buildings can seem Gibraltar-like compared to historic gardens.

They are, for the most part, gardens you'd never see otherwise unless you were invited guests of the owners. One or two of the city's most unusual gardens are indeed open to the public.

Except for Market Street's Krutch Park, a small city-run garden of sorts established almost 20 years ago as a legacy of the eccentric Krutch family—The Tennessee Handbook recently called it the most pleasant urban park in the state—gardens have withdrawn from the public areas of town and, more specifically, downtown. But there's one more downtown exception besides Krutch Park, one you'll see if you venture off Fifth Avenue up little-traveled King Street, one of the spokes of Emory Place.

It's a courtyard between two upscale apartment buildings, the Lucerne and the Patterson Cottage, near Emory Place. Inside are a dozen Doric columns, most of them broken and toppled, with some sort of structure across the top, some covered in ivy, and about four large rosebushes. It can puzzle an earnest historian. As far back as the history of this Edwardian neighborhood goes, it's not quite Hellenic.

A plaque on the fence clears up the mystery identifying it as THE ROSE PARK OF MISS MARY GILL, and also allows that it was established in 1990; that's 1990 A.D.

It was, of course, the idea of Kristopher Kendrick, identified as (HER BOY) on the plaque.

Go inside the wrought-iron fence and you'll see the columns are not Grecian marble, but pebbly concrete. Kendrick says the columns came from the arbor of the 1880s Williams house in Fountain City, demolished several years ago.

Kendrick doesn't need much encouragement to talk about the park's honoree. Mary Gill, the longtime Cumberland Avenue entrepreneur, was a major influence on his life.

"She called me 'her boy,'" he says. He especially remembers a moment lunching with her at the Plaza in New York in the '50s, when she looked around and says, "'Boy, this is the way you're supposed to live.' I just looked at her and said, 'Okay, I'll do that.'"

Miss Gill, for whose family nearby Gill Ave. is named, was present, in a wheelchair, at Mayor Ashe's dedication of the park in 1990. She died not too long after that, approaching her 100th birthday. Kendrick is proud of the pocket park. "It looks like it's been there forever," he says.

The roses aren't in bloom yet this year; come back and have a look in June.

If you were to pick Knoxville's least-likely place for a large flower garden, you might pick another spot maybe two miles to the northwest. Right next door to Ameristeel, which runs one of the biggest, loudest, ugliest factories in Knox County—and right across the street from an uninviting nightclub called DJ's Place. Racheff Garden makes it seem like the tough backstreets of Eden. You might think the garden was the lone survivor of a more graceful place and time—but the fact is, Lonsdale hasn't really changed that much in the 50 years since Racheff Garden was established.

In fact, the garden wouldn't be here if not for the steel mill. Bulgarian immigrant Ivan Racheff bought the old Knoxville Iron Works during World War II and founded the gardens here soon afterward. He did so defiantly, as if to prove you could have a beautiful garden anywhere, even next to a factory. He did much of the work himself; he purchased the magnolia tree as a sapling from a farmer on Market Square. He planted violets and reputed 500,000 daffodils and tulips imported from Holland. It was open to the public, but he didn't apologize for making it an eccentric place to his own liking. He built a trout stream that once supported real trout which he fed with what he'd determined was their favorite meat, horse; and six beehives. He installed a perfectly round-arched bridge so steep it probably violates somebody's safety standards, but it's fun to cross nonetheless. It crosses the old trout stream which empties into a pond where, today, goldfish are the most obvious denizens.

The unmarried Racheff lived in an apartment in the top of his office building nearby with his little black dog, Pudgy. He garnered national attention for this garden, earning the Silver Seal from the National Council of Garden Clubs. He died in 1982, some years after he'd turned over his garden to the Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs, who take care of it today. Though it's one of our best-known gardens and has hosted DAR meetings and bat mitzvahs, it's safe to say that most Knoxvillians have never even seen it.

It's a beautiful place, but not a quiet one. Along most of the length of the park, the factory groans and huffs like a frustrated locomotive—except at the western end, where the rumble of trucks makes it seem like an interstate exit. There's a barking pit bull tethered across the street from the southeastern end. Try on some earplugs, though, and it can seem Edenic. On a weekday last week, a couple of young families were picnicking there, as an old man made the half-mile circuit on foot.

Garden Drive is a residential street in Fountain City. It's about two miles long, but it's named for one particular garden that takes the space of maybe two residences. It's not half a mile off Broadway on the north side of Fountain City.

It's not officially open to the public, and there's no legal place near it to park—but you can see it pretty well from the road. You wonder if it has caused wrecks.

Some drivers might think it was some ancient, high-concept Putt-Putt green; the most conspicuous building is a stone pagoda with a very high roof; up in the woods is a tall stone tower. In between are a surprising variety of trees, odd stone structures, and paths, one of which leads over an empty pool on concrete lilypads.

It was established in 1917 by businessman Arthur Savage. An Englishman who looked the part, with Edwardian collar, round glasses, and a neat colonialist mustache, Savage was an industrial inventor and earthmoving-equipment tycoon of the late Victorian era. Close to 60 when he built this garden, Savage devoted his later years to tending it. His garden wasn't exactly in the old English-garden mold, reflecting more the oriental styles of art nouveau.

At the time, Savage Garden was well outside Knoxville's city limits, when Fountain City still had something of its old reputation as a health resort.

Savage later built a second garden in Anderson County, near what's now Lake City, as well as another near Gatlinburg, also equipped with stone towers; Savage's gardens drew some attention beyond the Knoxville area in the 1920s and '30s. The street had been known as Tennessee Avenue—which happens to be the current address of Racheff Garden, which is several miles away—but in the '40s, County Commission approved changing it to Garden Drive.

The garden has had its ups and downs since Savage's death in 1946, sometimes overgrown, sometimes well kept. During his lifetime, Savage kept it open to the public, but signs on the fence indicate that has changed. Today there's not much blooming at Savage Garden. It seems more interesting for its weird variety of trees and buildings than for anything that's been planted or nurtured lately.

Knoxville's gardening heyday is gone, probably never to return. But on a perfect day in April, you can still almost smell them.

March 30, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 13
© 2000 Metro Pulse