By Carol Burdett
It was a great day in 2004 when Walt Hitch looked out his window and studied the three unused acres that accompanied his hundreds of acres of AgResearch lands.
Hitch is the director of the Plateau Research and Education Center in Crossville. He and Cumberland County Ag. agent Gregg Upchurch had been discussing the possibilities of having Master Gardeners (MG) take responsibility for implementing and maintaining some sort of horticultural exhibit on the grounds. Upchurch took the thought to the MG membership who enthusiastically embraced the opportunity.
A committee of members volunteered to be the driving force behind designing and overseeing a plan that would result in gardens that would be well maintained and would attract the public for viewing. Rae Hozer soon became the leader of the group and kept up the enthusiasm and foresight that is always necessary to get a new project off the ground.
Upchurch fondly remembered the time when he was a student, then teacher at the University of Tennessee himself, and the Trial Gardens there were nothing but two small beds and a dream. And look what they are now! He could envision the same thing happening in Crossville; he even saw a billboard in his mind, encouraging people to hop off the interstate and visit these Crossville gardens.
And so, in 2005, the Discovery Gardens began the journey from nothing to what we have today, many small gardens with many dreams of what can be done with plants, imagination and gumption.
In 2005, the spring class of interns graduated from classes and were ready to dig in and get dirty in the soil of the very first garden. The planning committee had divided the acres into many plots, numbered and attached to proposed walkways. The walkways had to be wide enough to accommodate the center’s mowers. It was a real challenge to figure out where each proposed plot was and exactly where the pathways would be because at that point there was nothing in evidence except lots of turf and many forsythia bushes who were insidiously taking over more and more than their share of space.
With 100-feet tapes and computer read outs, we established where that first plot should be. Then the challenge was what should go into this first trail garden. “How about planting the same plants in sun and also in shade to examine the results?” Since the entire area was in the sun, that idea evaporated and finally the plan was made to simply exhibit “Plants that Grow Well on the Plateau.” They put in some newer varieties of shrubs and a few native trees and with advice from UT plant sciences department, including two native shrubs that were rapidly gaining in popularity.
The plan was for a seasoned MG to design the plant selections and location and the newly graduated students to do the planting and upkeep. Then they, in turn, would design a plot for the next year’s students. Human nature being what it is, there were a lot of changes in the planning of gardens over the next several years.
The membership began to show a lack of enthusiasm toward the project as they moved onto new endeavors. Then along came Nancy Christopherson, whose enthusiasm personified. She passionately brought the picture of what they could achieve back into focus and reminded the association that they have a truly unique opportunity to expand the horizons and to gain many teaching opportunities at Discovery Gardens. She instituted several successful programs within the Gardens including new classes that monthly bring upwards of 30 new homeowners into a place of which they were formally only vaguely aware. Some of these “newbies” have gone on to become interns in the spring classes.
They have now settled into a comfortable routine of holding classes at the Gardens so that each new class can be immersed into the atmosphere of an outdoor learning laboratory, and of discussing the next plot, which they will design and implement themselves. This is working extremely well as more and more students are taking on ownership of their own space and responsibilities.
Some of the ideas that have come out of these diverse opportunities are perennials that grow well on the Plateau, a landscaping plan with faux “house,” a plot of five different turf grasses so homeowners can see how various lawns would do in their own yards, a bulb garden with large rocks and a few new varieties of shrubs. Raised gardens demonstrate several different plans in action and the composting exhibit shows how easy it is to make your own nutritious compost. The peaceful conifer garden has two trees dedicated to deceased MG leaders. There is a native plant exhibit and a new childrens’ learning KinderGarden.
Nestled in and around these plots are many memorial stone benches and a classroom area that includes a stone table. That is open for public use and the entire gardens are open for exploring during all daylight hours. Discovery Gardens are on the quilt trail as Jim Podsiadlo has provided a wooden, outside quilt feature that meets the club’s standards.
Because there was still space that needed temporary filling, several UT trials have been included by UT’s Dr. Mark Windham. There are 16 Redbud tree trials in four different spaces throughout the acres and likewise ornamental grass trials and hydrangea trials. Here you can see how hydrangeas and azaleas (and others) do in the mostly unwelcome atmosphere of full sun. Check out the labels to identify the varieties that you would like planted in your own yard. There are many rose bushes in evidence including trail roses and a MG plot of wild and hybrid roses.
Because they now hold a free to the public day on the last Tuesday of each August called the Fall Gardeners’ Festival, a local pond specialist built a reticulating water feature with bubbling fountain to complete the nature experience. Master Gardeners also built bird houses which are annually filled with local residents plus a butterfly garden enthusiastically visited by butterflies and other pollinators.
The Discovery Gardens are at the Plateau Research and Education Center on Hwy. 70 N in Cumberland County and they welcome all guests. If you have a group that would like a guided tour, call ahead to the office at 484-0034 and they will have someone meet you there.
• • •
Carol Burdett is a Master Gardeners advocate and a founding member.