Each spring, gardeners all over Middle Tennessee set their clocks for April 15, the first day they can be assured that temperatures won’t drop below freezing and kill off their seedlings. Then it’s a mad dash into the garden for weeding, planting, transplanting, fertilizing, and watering, with a near-explosion of a winter’s-long store of pent-up energy. But by summer, those trendy new perennials, those statuesque grasses, those rare woodland finds are generally ready to do their thing, and gardeners tend to take some time off to see what their neighbors have been up to.
If they take a quick spin down to Franklin on a lazy summer afternoon, local gardeners will find that their neighbors at the historic Carnton Plantation have been very busy indeed. Since 1995, the Carnton Association has been reinstating the mid-19th-century ornamental kitchen garden that once thrived alongside the grand antebellum mansion, which served as the Confederate hospital during the Battle of Franklin and is now open as a historic site. At once a kitchen garden that served as a necessary means of survival on the frontier and a strolling garden intended as a place of beauty and entertainment, Carnton’s replanting brings back to life an intermingling of heirloom flowers, shrubs, trees, and vegetables that will inspire gardeners to rethink what the essence of a garden is all about.
Over the years, the Carnton Association has brought in some of the country’s top scholars in historic preservation to help return the plantation house to its appearance on the day of the November 1864 battle. Likewise, when it came time to revitalize the plantation’s garden, the organization did the same, this time calling in Gerry Doell, the Syracuse, N.Y.-based landscape historian who had researched the history of the White House gardens.
Interestingly, Doell was at first hesitant to take on the job. On too many occasions, he had discovered that historic house curators and homeowners decided against re-creating the gardens he had painstakingly researched. So this time he asked for assurance that whatever garden he found at Carnton would be rebuilt. Robert Hicks, the chairman of the Garden and Grounds Committee, unhesitatingly gave his word. Consequently, the garden at Carnton stands as one of the very few true-to-form, mid-19th-century kitchen gardens in America today.
Although the restored plantation house has been returned to its 1864 appearance and includes many of its original furnishings, the war, Doell aptly posited, would have left the garden in shambles. So the curators decided to interpret the garden as it would have been in 1847, when John McGavock, son of the original builder, redesigned it on the current site. By then, the McGavocks were among the wealthiest families in the county and had the resources to remodel their house and garden in the newer Greek Revival style. To do so, John McGavock removed his mother’s Federal “parlor” garden, comprised of ornamental shrubs planted close to the house, and combined her transplanted roses with flowers and vegetables.
Although little visual or written documentation of either garden is known to exist, Doell was nonetheless able to unearth the bones of the 1847 layout. Mike Hayes, the Franklin-based landscape designer, spent the first summer of the restoration overseeing the reconstruction of its design, creating quadrants and paths in a hatchwork brick pattern. The following year, Gilford McKay, then the head gardener, set in the necessities: Tennessee native tomatoes, Cherokee Purple and Kentucky Wonder pole beans, sweet potatoes, and rutabagas. According to the available information on mid-19th-century Tennessee kitchen gardens, tomatoes are now staked up cedar poles, peas run up cane supports, cosmos are edged around a square bed brimming with sweet potatoes. Rue is planted alongside roses as a natural insect repellent; clover enriches the soil. In emulation of a planting technique from the local Cherokees, cool-weather beans are intercropped with summer corn.
While the McGavock’s slaves tended to the grueling garden work and the McGavock men managed the plantation’s 1,400 acres, John’s wife Carrie, like her mother-in-law before her, undoubtedly oversaw the design of the garden and selected what vegetables and fruits were to be grown. Having seen to it that the 1,481 Confederate soldiers who died in the Battle of Franklin were given a proper burial, Carrie McGavock is known to history as the heroine of the Battle of Franklin, and the cemetery she created alongside Carnton continues to stand as the largest Confederate cemetery in private hands. But she was also a legendary cook, and she no doubt carefully purchased her seeds through the mail, exchanged them with friends, and brought them back to Carnton from visits to her Louisiana childhood home, in much the same manner that gardeners do today.
One shard of hard evidence of the Carnton garden does in fact exist: an 1867 photograph picturing its 8-foot-high white plank fence. Functional rather than decorative, the fence extended the growing season a good two weeks in spring and fall, and kept thieves and livestock out of the family’s produce. Although the unsightly fence at Carnton caused quite a row in the local community when it went up for good a few years ago, the true story of Historic Carnton is its most enduring virtue.
Historic Carnton Plantation is located at 1345 Carnton Ln., Franklin 37064. For more information, call 794-0903.
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