DescriptionGardening, and living out-of-doors, come naturally to me thanks to my family. I myself moved so often as an adult that only now, after twenty years in Tennessee, have I been rooted long enough to see a flourishing garden emerge. It is named after a famous Comanche warrior, Quanah Parker, and we called our Parker, Texas garden that before moving here. I believe the Knoxville version is an example of transformation over time, with results that reflect what one can do on a limited budget with hard work, “pass-along” plants gifted and swapped, recycled materials, and patience. It is not grand, but it is engaging, attractive and loved. That led me to become a Master Gardener, and to re-think and treasure memories of our family’s love of gardening.
Reviewing our family photos, spanning several generations, I notice we almost always took the pictures out of doors. That includes 1916 images of my Swiss immigrant grandmother, Rose Brunner Hess, at an outdoor pavilion in Pennsylvania, of grandfather Emil Hess on the Hudson River in swim clothing around 1911, and of me at three with both grandparents, Rose and Emil, at Sherwood Gardens in Baltimore.
Emil Hess, who was a silk designer and manufacturer by trade, and a painter in retirement, grew flowers and vegetables each year in their back yard in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. A perfectionist, he kept a log book of the things he grew—each tomato plant, how many tomatoes they yielded, and the quality. Although they had by then sold their Ephrata “weekend” farm, parting with the animals my father and his sisters loved, they all spoke often of how wonderful it was.
Emil also incorporated pressed flowers into some of his paintings. One series involved Edelweiss he collected on trips back to Switzerland—the pressed plants are in the foreground with other painted flowers; mountains are shown in back (see images for painting). Once I was able to settle into growing things in one place my own paintings also included pressed flowers and leaves from my garden in Knoxville. These were typically suspended in layers of clear resin, paint and dried metallic pigment so that only portions show. Comparing our paintings, however different, one might guess they come from the same family.
My own parents, Arthur and Nancy Hess, just married during World War II, participated in a Baltimore “victory garden” on the grounds of what would later become their children’s elementary school. Pictures of them in shorts show a happy young couple working the earth.
Our Baltimore house, designed by my parents, had two stories of south-facing glass looking toward woods and a creek. A relatively small house by today’s standards, it was extended by an outdoor patio and deck that we gravitated toward as soon as it got warm enough. That’s where most of our family photos were shot. My mother’s annual flower garden, and my father’s vegetables, yielded flowers for the home, bouquets for our school teachers, and arrangements in garden club exhibits. Ribbons my mother won are still preserved in scrap books. “Extra” zucchini we left in baskets, like orphans, at neighbors’ doors.
I lived in New Mexico for many years, but only owned irrigated property right before leaving the state. School, graduate school and then a job that involved travel all over New Mexico left me too busy to start a garden. I never became familiar with gardening practices there. By the time I bought my own first house, a tiny farm house on two acres in Atlanta, my father had cultivated a wooded shade garden in Charlottesville, Virginia. From there he sent boxes of what he called “babies,” plants he had started from cuttings, seedling volunteers he had nurtured, and bulbs he dug and divided from favorite daylilies and irises.
When I married, we renovated a larger Atlanta house. There we also created beds in a yard mostly untended. The garden we later started in Dallas, also an undeveloped space, began with packages from my father. We were only in Atlanta together for two years, and Dallas for four; those gardens had only just begun.
My father supplied plant material for three gardens, in three states, including this one. With each box he sent a detailed, hand-written list of each plant, with Latin and popular names, and instructions for installation and care. Once he shipped huge blooming daylilies in a very long box to our Dallas home.
Our 1932 Knoxville house appealed to us both because of the outbuildings and over an acre of open urban space. We are still renovating the house—that seems to be a lifetime commitment. Because we are trying to maintain the original Arts and Crafts aesthetic we left the relatively small windows intact, even though I long for sliding doors and glass.
I started this garden by putting my father’s shade plants in one small place under the 160-year-old oak near our kitchen. Epimedium, Lenten roses, crocuses, trillium, and many other gems are his. There the earth was relatively workable.
In the rest of this plot previous owners had parked cars everywhere and left the grounds unworked and empty of anything special save a few old trees. It was a daunting prospect. To create new beds, and amend the soil, I had no master plan. With “pass-along” plants from family, friends and the grandson of the original owners, which I embraced unconditionally, I laid out new garden spaces with rock borders, mulch and soil. With care over time, they at last look intentional but never final. Some beds became “rooms” and lawn became “woodland.”
When we added decks, our house extended into the garden. I saved a broken cement walkway that led from the house to the back corner and a cistern, now long gone. This cross-cut the back yard at an interesting angle and gave me a focal point to work toward. A few trees and a circular bed at the end, long beds on each side of the walk, and a grove of river birches to one side helped orient the space for other things to come. The circular bed is now another shade garden, with a bench my husband renovated for sitting and loads of shade plants from friends, fellow Master Gardeners, and family. The river birches are now so tall they provide enough shade for woodland plants, as well as paths of old, found brick. A sitting area with brick patio and a bench make that hospitable.
A large deck and walkway attaching the house to the studio building, and a larger studio deck, inspired us to finally tackle the rest of the back yard. The entire property slopes away from the house at a fairly steep incline. The decks have given us some respite. Four very large raised beds are on a level area created with heavy equipment. These have proven to be a wonderful way to give structure to the property and they yield great tomatoes and herbs. Large rocks, a rain garden and fish pond in the far distance are a new 2017 addition. A little deck nearby allows us to access the pond easily and provides another place to sit.
In front, the yard contained one very old oak that subsequently died and fell down, probably because an asphalt driveway disturbed the roots. It had been at least 160 years old—the crew that cleared the driveway counted the rings. The ground where the tree had stood, shaded for years, suddenly became not only plant-able but unruly with weeds. The kidney-shaped bed that has finally evolved is still a weed haven but we have added azaleas, a raised bed for roses, and lots of daylilies and dogwood trees.
On the opposite side of the curved driveway we have only gradually added dogwoods and small beds, some of which have shade thanks to a few older trees and shrubs that we inherited. That also is still weedy, and I find it to be the least interesting part of the garden. It did not help that the previous owner had removed another very ancient oak in that area because a neighbor was afraid it would fall on his house. This is a common fear here that I do not understand, especially having lived in New Mexico where trees are precious. Luckily another very old oak, like the one in the first shade garden near our kitchen (which, by the way, is so close we will surely die if it falls), and the one that fell, stands in full glory in the side yard in back.
Overall, there is still a lot to do and that, I know, will continue. I consider it a blessing, lending purpose to life and a future orientation, and providing many hours outdoors enjoying the flowers and trees. My best friends are the ones who visit and do me the courtesy of exclaiming “How beautiful!” even when their own gardens may be grander and better curated. When you visit ask me to show you the garden before we enter the house!
-Story contributed by Jean Hess Keller,