The Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum is another of those near-downtown jewels like Ijams, the Urban Wilderness, Fort Dickerson and House Mountain. This particular gem sits about five minutes by car to the east of downtown in the area formerly known as Park City, but known in recent decades simply as “east Knoxville.”
When I met recently with Jim Richard, Executive Director, we sat outside on a glorious day with perfect skies, mild temperatures and the skyline of the Smoky Mountains visible in the distance. He pointed out Mt. LeConte and commented how perfectly understandable that this is the place David Howell chose to build his home.
Mr. Howell located the home on the land grant given him in the 1780s for his service in the Revolutionary War, planting his first orchard before the founding of Knoxville and ten years before Tennessee became a state. He extended his holdings and continued to provide trees, seeds and produce to settlers. The enterprise stayed in the family and in the 1870s David’s great-grandson Samuel established “Howell Nurseries,” and his sons incorporated the business in 1916.
The business grew to include thirteen locations stretching from Tennessee to Florida, focusing on ornamental trees. In 1942 Joe Howell, David’s great-great-great grandson established a landscaping business adjacent to the orchards and began building the stone walls (there are two miles of stone walls on the property) and round gate houses, now well known landmarks of the property. His daughter, Jenny, operated the business on his death until 2002.
Aging and with no one in the family to take over, she agreed to have the property become a botanical garden. With funding provided by the Aslan Foundation, the Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum purchased the sixteen acres owned by Jenny and in 2004 added an additional twenty-eight acres of the original estate. The property as it currently stands includes forty-seven acres.
History is far from all the KBGA has to offer. Last year ground was broken for the recently opened Welcome Center located in a wooded section of the property. That facility offers meeting space, a support building for weddings and will soon host an art exhibition with Knoxville artists. Nourish Knoxville opened offices here in 2015. The Center for Urban Agriculture also maintains its offices here, as does Keep Knoxville Beautiful.
You’ll find fifty varieties and thirteen different species of dogwoods on the property. Some are more shrub-like than what we’ve come to expect. Trees dating back many years are scattered about the property as they were allowed to continue growing if they passed transplanting age without selling. Invasive species are diligently being removed in order to return the property to a similar state to which it would have been during David Howell’s lifetime.
The biggest, completely open, secret contained on the property is the many uses currently underway. I’ll confess while I first stumbled onto the nursery and the beautiful walls sometime in the 1980s, I didn’t know about the KBGA until I attended the final day of Rhythm N Blooms there just a couple of years ago. Recent years have seen an explosion of uses and they continue to expand.
Personal garden plots are available to the community – which is listed as a food desert. The KBGA provides tools as well as seeds for warm and cool weather crops. All gardening is organic and fertilizer is provided by the fine animals at the Knoxville Zoo. Farmers keep their produce and some of it is sold at area farmers’ markets. There are currently over 120 garden plots in use, mostly by nearby residents.
Produce from the gardens supplies K Brew with the vegetables they need for their wraps and other foods and a Summer Solstice dinner held on the grounds in June will feature produce grown exclusively on-grounds. Winter garden options are also offered via their large green-house. The organization hopes to become a larger supplier for local chefs not only through the gardens, but also from their nut orchards and fruit orchards. Additionally, the property sports a very large pumpkin patch which is free and open to the community.
The community also suffers a higher-than-average rate of obesity and that became one of the driving forces behind the recently developed 1.25 mile walking trail complete with fitness equipment along the way. Regulars are starting to emerge as word about the trails spreads.
Knoxville’s municipal arborist has spearheaded a project on the land to grow trees in rocks, which allows for easily pulling them up for re-planting without damaging the roots. A farmers’ market building will soon be built from an existing structure and it will include a commercial kitchen allowing for cooking, canning and preserving classes and will also serve as an incubator for small businesses.
Mr. Richards said that while galas continue to be held at the gardens, that is giving way to other uses such as weddings, casual walks with the family dog, picnics and more. The younger generation is looking to be more active and the botanical garden is adapting to fit those desires and needs. During my visit I saw younger and older visitors, as well as visitors of various ethnicities.
The KBGA employs five full-time and two part-time staff members, but the bulk of activity on the property is performed by volunteers. The Master Gardeners from UT teach classes. Americorps VISTA volunteers play a large role, as well. Even for-profit groups have volunteered, including 21st Century Mortage who recently sent a large contingent to work. Over two-hundred volunteers worked during the first two months of this year. All the efforts are directed at offering a greater value to the community with a health-centered focus to all that they do.
It is a non-profit and Mr. Richards’ job is largely fund-raising through grants, memberships and programs. There is no fee to visit and enjoy the property and they hope to increase the numbers of people doing just that. Fundraisers such as April’s “Hats in Bloom,” and October’s “Green Thumb Gala,” help greatly, but smaller donations and memberships are also essential.
The goals of the KBGA are simple and direct, Mr. Richards told me: They are about “growing gardens, honoring the history and cultivating our communities.” By “communities, he explained that he meant the physical community in which they reside as well as the agricultural, horticultural and other communities of people they touch.
They are open dawn until dusk each day. Take the short trip and see all the great things which are happening. Consider purchasing a membership, making a donation or volunteering. Until you can make it out there, stop by their Facebook page and give them a “like.”