These days, if you want to see acres of carefully cultivated flowers in Nashville, you probably visit the grounds of Cheekwood. But some of the plants growing there now have a longer history than Cheekwood itself. They come from East Nashville, where eighty years ago, one woman invited people by the thousands to enjoy her own private garden.
It started with the trees.
In the early 1920s, Cora and Harry Howe moved from New England to Nashville for his job as a shoe company executive. As the couple started from scratch, building a new place that would feel like home, their first priority was trees. They found eight acres with oaks more than a hundred years old. Then, once they moved in, Cora set about transforming the area under that canopy of leaves.
Ben Page and Elizabeth Proctor have fond memories…
“It was a garden like no other.”
“It was like gardening in a cathedral. There were layers of color from the ground up.”
“She particularly wanted native plants.”
“Azaleas which were in a spectrum of colors that literally blended together…and I’ll never forget how beautiful that place was.”
Page and Proctor grew up a generation apart, but both visited Mrs. Howe’s garden often as kids.
“She never told us not to do anything in that garden, [there was no] ‘don’t go over here or don’t step on this,’” Remembers Page. “She loved the fact that kids loved to be in her garden.”
From 1929 on into the sixties, Mrs. Howe invited the general public to wander around her private property on certain days each Spring. Hundreds came, then thousands. She even served homemade lemonade and ginger snaps to the strangers who gathered among the blooms. That lasted for almost forty years, until, in 1967, Cora Howe died.
Elizabeth Proctor was president of the garden club at the time, and her phone was ringing with calls from Mrs. Howe’s friends, who were distressed to see the garden in decline.
“Ladies were calling me ‘What did you today to save the Howe garden?’ And the next one would call: ‘What did you do yesterday to save the Howe garden?” Proctor shakes her head as she remembers. “‘Til I wanted to shoot ‘em.”
It took a certain amount of legal wrangling and lots of fundraising, but eventually the club worked out a deal to move as much of Wildings as they could to the botanical gardens that had opened just a few years before at Cheekwood. They contracted with a company and set a moving date.
Two days before, there was a snowstorm. Proctor says the women who’d been hounding her about the garden showed up in their galoshes, “and these were ladies in their 80s, some of them in their 70s, out there because, you see, the men didn’t know where anything was.”
Dogwood trees, wildflowers, ferns, even massive boulders of Tennessee limestone were quickly transferred from East Nashville to Belle Meade and then maintained by the garden club. But the contours of the site at Cheekwood weren’t the same. It wasn’t the same kind of soil. The new garden never had quite the same magic as Wildings.
Last year, work began on the task of recreating the garden, trying to find that special something. This time, the work was planned out by Ben Page. You see, the boy who loved to visit Wildings grew up to become a landscape architect.
He says the task was clear: “bring back the community of plants, the relationships, the beautiful floral displays that were so famous, that she was so famous for.”
For months, Howe Garden was a construction zone. Plants were dug up and put in safekeeping while bulldozers reshaped the landscape and workers constructed new bridges and paths, all with memories of Mrs. Howe informing the plans.
“I can channel her,” Page says. “She’s still-she’s like my grandmother. I mean, I’m pretty keenly aware of what I think her images would have been.”
Construction is finished now. The garden has been replanted. It’s not Cora Howe’s Wildings, it never can be, but Page says somewhere between five and ten percent of what’s growing now does trace back to her garden, and those plants are blooming alongside the stones she chose, under lots and lots of trees.
Cheekwood will officially reopen the Howe garden on Saturday, April 21.