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
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.
Around 500 different species of plants and shrubs are now in the garden, many of which are native to the Southeast, and far too many to list or even to attempt to name here. Pellett rattled off a few, including plumleaf azalea, bottlebrush buckeye, spigelia (Indian Pink), and Japanese lantern. A colorful mixed border presents a changing array of perennials and shrubs, and there is a fall border. The garden also features a large, sunny central lawn, vegetable and herb gardens, a rose garden, and a swimming pool and adjacent pergola with a seating area.
Both client and her consultant describe their objectives in creating and maintaining this garden in highly artistic terms. They throw out words such as “perspective,” “balance,” “layering,” “structure,” “form,” “texture,” and “sculpting.” Perhaps this comes as no surprise since Dale Skaggs, director of horticulture at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, says this about Pellett: “He is a scholar, an artist, and a plantsman.” The artist in him is evident; Pellett likes doing woodcuts and watercolors in his spare time.
This particular garden features long vistas, and its stone, brick, and gravel paths are central elements that lead you deeper into the woodlands, enticing the visitor and offering a nice surprise around every corner. The owner of the garden is admittedly not a particular devotee of what she calls “dripping fountains” (which are hard to maintain, in her opinion), but she is very partial to statues, many of which are dotted around her garden as key focal points. She tells me the look of these graceful statues, some of which once belonged to her mother, change frequently as the plants nestled around them change.
For Pellett, the secret to gardening success is very simple. For him it is using “the right plant in the right place.” That sounds easy enough, but it takes careful editing, fine tuning, and constant vigilance, because as Pellett says, “Memphis wants to be a forest.” It is all about trial and error, and he and his client agree they frequently envision combinations in their heads that in reality just don’t work.
Speaking generally, shrubs and flowers with white or light blossoms such as oakleaf hydrangea and viburnum are perfect in a woodland setting against the forest’s many shades of green, and Pellett believes “it is nature’s way of showing off the garden.” He tells me also that “this is a different garden every single day,” and suggests that we come back and photograph it again and again as he likes to do.
Four distinct growing seasons mean in essence four different gardens. For example, Pellett says the July garden is all foliage and hosta in the shade garden, but bright yellow and red plants elsewhere such as hardy hibiscus, red canna, and cardinal flower, all of which stand out against the hot summer sun, especially when viewed from a distance.
Over 30 varieties of trees stand on the property. Many have been lost over time, taken by nature, so the majority are now hickory rather than the original oak. However, more oaks have been planted as well as dogwood, beech, deciduous magnolias, and others.
Branch structuring is an important element of the garden, and Pellett tells me this entails accentuating the bones of the shrubs and trees through artful pruning. Indeed, one sweetgum tree and an old Japanese maple look like dramatic pieces of sculpture outlined against the blue sky. In addition, his aim is always “to raise the canopy” to let more light into the garden.
Santiago Acuna, the gardener on-site daily, is another important member of the team responsible for this garden’s glory. Acuna has been with the family since 2003 and Pellett says that, what’s more, “he is always here working and is blessed with a truly great eye and a sophisticated esthetic sense.”
Our garden lady’s patient spouse also derives a great deal of pleasure from this spectacular garden, sometimes offering horticultural suggestions of his own. But as he good-naturedly says, he is frequently overruled and therefore describes himself (to use a diplomatic term) as simply “an ambassador without portfolio.”
The bonsai plants which are displayed in the home and garden come from Brussel’s Bonsai Nursery in Olive Branch, Mississippi, a local treasure chest that is famous for offering the largest selection of indoor and outdoor bonsai trees in the United States. Our garden owners’ son — proving that apples never fall very far from their trees — is a business partner of Brussel Martin, the company’s founder.
“Gardening is like raising children, never boring, always interesting,” opines our gracious garden lady, and as such, it has clearly been her lifelong passion (along with raising her children!). When she said this, I was reminded of reading recently about a famous aristocrat, Ambrose Congreve, who died last year at the age of 104, having established at his estate, Mount Congreve in County Waterford, Ireland, a garden of worldwide renown.
Mr. Congreve was said to favor (and often quote) this old proverb: “To be happy for an hour, have a glass of wine; to be happy for a day, read a book; to be happy for a week take a wife; and to be happy forever, make a garden.”
Anne Cunningham O’Neill is the arts and culture editor of Memphis magazine.