Between the pillow-sized hydrangeas and deep-green tangles of ivy, moss-draped stonewalls and monstrous 19th-century cedars, this place more closely resembles the setting of a Russian fairytale than it does a public garden five minutes east of downtown Knoxville. Here, the senses are more acutely tuned; every sound--the whisper of April breeze passing through the treetops, or the crunch of birds sifting through the last of winter's fallen leaves--is magnified. Each plant exudes a presence, be it eccentric or subdued; it's as though they recognize this corner of earth as their stage, and we their captive audience.
"I feel like they're getting they're getting ready to walk," says Jim McDonough, volunteer president of the Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum (KBGA) board of directors, standing before a cluster of weeping spruces with long, needle-cloaked limbs and moody postures. Indeed, if this were a Harry Potter installation, one might have good reason to be nervous--it's easy to imagine the spruces, or any of the lush flora and fauna surrounding us, playing tricks on naïve visitors, trading places behind our backs or disappearing altogether.
Not surprisingly, the words "magical" and "spiritual" surface often in McDonough's speech, mostly when he's at a loss for more concrete adjectives. Though well-versed in aesthetics, he seems to understand that some things--the sight of tiny white blossoms falling as snow through the air, for instance, or the blue-green of an Iris' not-yet-unfurled blossom--simply have no equivalent in language. They can only be experienced, and even then they may be difficult to fully absorb. "In 1978, when my wife and I first visited--we were looking for large trees--I couldn't believe this place existed," McDonough says. It is, he explains, "a place of seduction. You want everything you see."
Before the KBGA board, a not-for-profit corporation formed in 2001, purchased the 16-acre garden off Wimpole Avenue in the Burlington/Five Points area in 2002, it had been in the Howell family since 1783. In 1786 it was opened as a nursery and continued to be operated as one into the 21st century; it was thought to be the oldest commercial business in Tennessee. Its most famous operator was the late Joe N. Howell, a much sought-after landscape designer who established the gardens that are still visible today. (Howell was responsible for other gardens in the area as well; unfortunately, he kept no records of his work, so the full extent of his influence may only be guessed at.) C.B. Howell established a separate nursery on 28 acres of land bordering the gardens' eastern boundary in 1942, which KBGA was also able to purchase in May 2004.
Evidence of the land's commercial history isn't hard to find, from ancient irrigation systems abandoned in the orchard to shelves upon shelves of tiny clay pots, rarely used in modern-day nurseries. Inside the gardens' offices, there are black and white photographs of Joe Howell, including one in which he's standing inside one of his greenhouses. Balding and short in stature, he smiles jovially, his face framed by the greenhouse's symmetry. It's clear, even from the old photograph, that he was passionate about the land from which he harvested plants for clients. And after visiting the greenhouse, one gets a sense that, just maybe, he still is.
"Do you feel it?" KBGA Administrator Christi Green asks, walking into the airy, stone-sided structure. Before entering, she had mentioned the range of temperatures contained within the greenhouse; the air feels somehow marbled, with rushes of heat and cold inexplicably intertwined and the visitor sandwiched between them. No one can explain it, but it doesn't feel strange or sinister. The fluctuations merely add to the greenhouse's already enchanted mystique. For all its deterioration, the building has the kind of beauty that only time can cultivate: Great tendrils of ivy, all varieties (it was a showroom for Howell's extensive collection), creep up the walls, which have since faded into a watercolor palate of blues and silvers and greens, and the half-light ushered in through broken-out semi-translucent plastic roofing lends everything a surreal kind of glow. "It's... something," Green says, shaking her head.
Visitors expecting something formal and manicured may be disappointed; there are only so many weeds a staff of four hourly groundskeepers, plus a full-time administrative staff of three, can pull up over the span of a 44-acre lot. But for those who visit with an open mind, the gardens' unruliness may actually add to their charm. It's as though the plants themselves, being stubborn and willfully gorgeous survivors of the ages, are the ones in charge. (As a tribute to the gardens' hardiness, and to their owners' dedicated care, KBGA was recently awarded a 2007 "Heroes of Horticulture" award by the Cultural Landscape Foundation and Garden Design magazine.)
But there's a warmth to the gardens as well. When asked to describe the spirit of the grounds, Green responds, "I feel enveloped by it, like the place is giving me a hug. I'm not anywhere but here. It's welcoming."
Green, who graduated from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor's in horticulture, says there are different spots she goes to for different reasons, a nod to the gardens' vastness and variety. It'd be easy to get lost walking from one end to the other, between the secretive nooks and narrow passageways that thread their way through it. The gardens are set up, it seems, in vignettes--a terraced lawn, inlaid with vivid patches of green, bleeds into a garden that feels unkempt, wild, afire with the crimson cast of daylight shining through Japanese maples.
There are solemn groves of birch trees juxtaposed against trees whose branches grow outward in spirals, like a head of curly hair; there are rare plants, like Cedars of Lebanon and the Dawn redwoods once thought to be extinct, just feet away from East Tennessee dogwoods and climbing roses. Portholes built into the stonewalls are windows of possibility; greenhouses are mysteries to be explored with all senses engaged. Round stone out-buildings are the geometric opposite of Howell's linear, rectangular beds, and weeping tree shapes--Howell favored these, and the gardens contain several different varieties of them--are contrasted by dense, stout boxwoods and upright pines. Shapes and colors and seasons melt into one another, one after the next, seamless and yet still surprising.
The gardens are far from finished products, though, and the KBGA has grand designs on their future. "It's a blank canvas," Green says, reciting a list of possible additions: welcome center, gift shop, amphitheatre, facilities for educational programs, fine sculpture and water features, bird sanctuary, areas dedicated to meditation, 10 separate garden areas as imagined by leading designers, and accommodations for poetry readings, fundraising banquets and garden dinners. But any improvements, McDonough notes, will remain within the parameters of the gardens' original essence. "It's extremely beautiful, but it has to be maintained and developed," he says. "One thing the board is concerned about is keeping this place within the expressed wishes of Howell."
Already, the planning has begun. Last year, representatives from the Garden Conservancy, a national agency dedicated to preserving America's historic gardens with whom the KBGA is now affiliated, visited to help the board develop a vision statement and strategic plan. But input from the community is critical as well, McDonough says; a meeting with stakeholders--members of the community and area churches--is in the works for later this spring to collect their desires and needs. "Part of our mission is to serve the community, both the immediate community and the broader community," he explains. "It's such a wonderful green space, five minutes from downtown, in the central part of the city. When this place is fully realized, it will be a destination."
If you know where to look, it already is.
IF YOU GO: The Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum is located at 2743 Wimpole Avenue, in the Burlington/Five Points area. Directions are online at www.knoxarboretum.org . The property is open to the public seven days a week from dawn until dusk, and guided tours are available. Admission is free. The gardens may also be rented for special events and weddings. Donations and volunteer gardeners are always welcome. For more information, call (865)540-8690.