Gentlemen with a Green Thumb

“No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.”  -Thomas Jefferson

 

Few things are more Southern than cherishing an outdoor hobby. Connection to the land is an inexplicable pleasure of this humid piece of heaven. And having one’s hands in the dirt is about as honorable a trade as one could hope to master. These gentlemen have discovered the gratification of cultivation, and each has developed the talent in their own style.

 

By Katie Faulkner | Photography by Rich Smith

 

Heart & Soul

“It just has a heart and soul to it. And it’s rewarding when we can share that with other people and they see it too.” Don Thatcher

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Mark Ramsey

Thirty years ago, Mark Ramsey purchased a charming, historic home in Riverview with a large lot after deciding it was time to put down roots – his own and his garden’s.

 

The back lot, which was once used for dog breeding, was wildly overgrown when he moved in. After having the whole area cleared, Mark had a blank palette that he painted with perennials, pathways, and his now signature hydrangeas.

His enthusiasm for gardening was sparked as a child and has since grown into his 90-plus collection of hydrangea plants. “My mom would give me a little patch to work on when I was a child. I would plant marigolds, which are instantly showy. And she always had beautiful hydrangeas that she kept. My aunt and grandmother always had hydrangeas too, and I just came to love the way they looked,” Mark shares.

The lot is loosely formed into three separate areas. First is the parterre, a more formal, French-styled section of manicured, mazing boxwoods. The stepping stone path that winds through is punctuated by potted trellis plants.

Stepping down into the heart of the garden is the second section. Here, multi-colored hydrangeas surround a Tennessee crab orchard stone walkway and a long, tiered water feature, which Mark created out of the former dog breeder’s watering trough. Following the walkway, you find yourself, finally, in what Mark refers to as “the back 40.” This is the only space reserved for a manicured greenway. The lawn is lined with stunning evergreen shrubs and a mixture of what some would call weeds, but Mark sees them as whimsical flowering filler.

Mark’s garden has been featured in the Riverview garden tour numerous times as well as a spread in Southern Living magazine. His hydrangea collection of 90 or more plants includes limelights, French mopheads, Sister Theresas, and other varieties. “I don’t manipulate the soil to achieve certain colors, and they grow in pink and blue and purple, all on the same plant. That indicates balanced soil,” he says. Mark fills in around the hydrangeas with a multitude of hostas, ferns, and bulb flowers that provide both spring color and year-round filler.

Whether hosting garden parties, placing sculptures, or discussing the landscape with his neighbors, Mark finds fulfillment in cultivating a structured, beautiful space. As he explains it, “Gardening is a relaxing activity for me, because I enjoy the results of imposing my order on nature.”

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(l-r) Maryam Ghorashi, Don Thatcher, and Chip Dantzler with dog, Minnie

Chip & Don

 

Inviting vignettes help define the luscious landscape that Chip Dantzler and Don Thatcher have created.

 

For the past 20 years, the lot behind their home has evolved endlessly to create a dazzling green haven for their enjoyment. “It’s our own sanctuary, and bit of paradise,” Don shares.

One of their favorite ways to enjoy the garden is to entertain family, friends, and neighbors. “We love to have people over and spend time in the garden any chance we get,” Don affirms. “Our next-door neighbor is a preacher, and he and his wife have a new baby in the house;  he came over and sat in the garden and called it the ‘meditation garden’ because it was so peaceful. He stayed and wrote his sermon there!” They have also opened their garden to the Chattanooga Area Food Bank Garden Tour numerous times.

The gate entrance forms a pathway around an overflowing fountain filled with succulents and surrounded by hostas. A bench tucked in the corner creates a quiet sitting area perfect for intimate conversations. Following the begonia-lined flagstone pathway further into the garden, hydrangeas and bright-hued evergreens grow around a pool patio. “We designed more of an immersion pool with stone around and a dark lining to make the water seem very deep. The goal was for it to blend in more naturally with the garden setting,” Chip explains.

Past the pool, another vignette is tucked away behind a stunning weeping Norwegian spruce. “We call that the secret garden,” Chip says, “because the pathway winds around behind all these trees to a private sitting area that is completely hidden.” And still further around the path is another private sitting area tucked into an alcove of evergreens.

“We visit garden centers all over, within about a 100-mile radius, so there is a pretty large variety of plants here. It’s just been very carefully curated over the years. We kept what we liked, and we changed out what we didn’t,” Chip explains. That variety and meticulous hand-selection is what led to their receiving the Mayor’s Beautification Award.

Don says they really enjoy it as a peaceful hobby and a great way to commune with nature, friends, and pets. As rewarding as the visible results are, he emphasizes that the intangible factors are equally rewarding, saying, “The best compliment we ever get is when someone says, ‘Oh, can I bring my friend back over to see your garden?’ because it just has a heart and soul to it. And it’s rewarding when we can share that with other people and they see it too.”

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Carlton Mathes

 

Carlton Mathes and his wife, Audrey, love to spend time in their garden, watching nature’s cycles draw in native wildlife.

 

After moving into their house nearly 14 years ago, Carlton decided to work on his own landscaping. He and Audrey learned of an interesting option – a rain garden, sanctioned by the city’s RainSmart program. “So, the city will actually come out and calculate how much water comes out of your gutters and your driveway, and so on. The goal is to reduce storm water runoff,” Carlton explains.

After eight years as a Master Gardener, Carlton now loves observing the beauty of nature’s many symbiotic relationships. He plants native species which support the habitat of local animals and insects. “To me, that’s the whole point of having a garden,” Carlton says. In his garden, the seeds from large yellow shasta daisies, purple coneflowers, and black-eyed Susans feed finches and little yellow canaries. Red berries from his cotoneaster plants drew in a whole flock of cedar waxwings last year. He says, “After the blooms die, I delay pulling them up or deadheading them so that the birds have a snack.”

The structure of his rain garden is naturally divided into three separate zones. The lowest zone is great for plants that prefer “wet feet,” or more saturated soil, like irises and elephant ears. On the slope of the ridge outlining the garden, Carlton plants varieties that prefer semi-wet soil, while on top of the ridge, native plants that require good drainage thrive. Plants that do best here are native pollinators like black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, ornamental grasses, and Joe-Pye weed.

Toward the center of the rain garden, Carlton installed a pop-up drain where all the downspouts are connected. When enough water accumulates, the drain pops up and allows excess water to flow out over the bricks and water the garden.

Carlton enjoys learning as much as he can about the natural landscape he has created. As he puts it, “I like to plant plants that look good to everybody, not just for me. They look good to the birds and butterflies and so on. My yard might not be as manicured as some, but if you don’t stop to notice all the lifeforms that come in, then you won’t appreciate it as much as you could.”

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Jim Keown

 

As a Master Gardener, Jim Keown enjoys giving back to the community by participating in volunteer work, leading classes, and guiding individuals in the noble nature of gardening.

 

In his time with the Master Gardeners, Jim has grown to love hostas. “They’re a hardy, low-maintenance type of plant that look beautiful and come in many varieties. We’ve really become hosta-holics,” he says. Because of their appealing sprawl in shady areas, they were a great fit for the home he built nearly 16 years ago. The back lot had mature trees that Jim wanted to keep, so a shade garden developed in lush style.

Hostas are featured prominently in his mystical, wandering greenway. Meandering stone walkways are lined with over 170 hosta plants and multiple other types of sprawling green shade-loving plants. Dividing the garden into separate vignettes is a stone-lined stream. “The stream was here when we built this house, but I collected stones from all over and lined the stream bit by bit,” Jim recalls. A charming, stained wooden footbridge crosses the stream, under an arbor, headed into what Jim and his wife, Linda, refer to as “the North 40.” “That’s sort of Jim’s spot,” Linda says. This large lot holds tree stumps planted with various types of impatiens and hostas, and a peaceful bench where Jim enjoys passing some time, observing their creation.

“We enjoy walking around the side yard, the back, and across the creek to plan what we’ll do next,” Jim shares. “You know, Linda had already been gardening for years when we married a few years ago, so it was something we could enjoy together.  We learned a few things from each other. We’re both Master Gardeners and part of the hosta society together.”

The Keowns’ luscious leafy paradise has become one of their favorite pastimes and a special way for them to learn and bond. SG

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