From Wilderness to Wonderland
A private estate in East Memphis contains one of our city's finest gardens.
Sweeping vistas, such as this view looking across the sunny lawn to the rear of the home, are important features of this East Memphis garden.
photography by Andrea Zucker
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As often as not, when the subject of gardening is brought up among members of this city’s various clubs devoted to the subject, the conversation circles around to one magnificent local garden in particular, a garden famous far and wide for its breadth of scope and the variety of its flora. And as you can imagine, I was especially thrilled when the reserved owner of this property graciously agreed to let us photograph her beautiful grounds for this issue of Memphis magazine. Our timing was impeccable; to my mind, these pictures capture this garden’s provision of a perfect cool, green antidote to a hot, dry Memphis July.
My friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) and her husband purchased a small portion of the old Norfleet Estate in East Memphis 40 years ago. Back then, it was a little less than three overgrown acres of virtual wilderness; they tell me, “You couldn’t get in without a machete.” They built a house to live in, but the garden that exists today was still a long way down the road. While the lady of the house was always a dedicated gardener, as were her mother and grandmother before her, the transformation of this unruly tangle into an orderly and first-class garden was clearly a daunting task.
As luck would have it, Karl Kaestle, nationally known plantsman and owner of the late, great Four Fives Nursery at 5555 Summer Avenue, introduced our garden lady to Tom Pellett, local master gardener, renowned horticulturist, and landscape designer extraordinaire. The two became fast friends, and Pellett cheerfully agreed to work with her as a consultant to help create the garden of her dreams. The rest is history, and “their” garden now has the supreme honor of being included in the Garden Club of America’s Archives of American Gardens, a research center that is part of the Smithsonian Institution.
When my photographer and I arrived early one Monday morning to tour the garden, Pellett was already hard at work. The owner of the garden greeted us with pruning shears in hand, and as we walked along with the two of them, she and Tom talked about this garden’s special challenges, characteristics, and charms.
Having consulted on numerous residential gardens as well as projects at Memphis Botanic Garden and The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Pellett says, with no small degree of pride, “This is certainly the best woodland garden in the area.” As he tells it, when he started working, “there was a single path and no plantings.” Our garden lady in turn credits Pellett with giving her garden its strong lines. He says his original vision was “low floodplain and bluffs” which meant that early on, he hauled in and placed three or four truckloads of Arkansas boulders that looked as if they had been around since the beginning of time. In order “to tame the serious drainage problem,” a dry creek bed was created. While Pellett collects rain in pickle barrels in his own backyard, this large expanse of property necessitated a somewhat more complex irrigation system.