Gardens are stories written in plants, hardscapes, water features, and sky blue patios. They are windows through which visitors can catch glimpses of their caretakers’ intentions and priorities. Are they places to gather or to regenerate biodiversity? Grow food, provide solace, or maintain a business? Gardeners often tease their style and handiwork in their front yards while their secret backyard gardens are obscured by houses and fences.
For one weekend each May, dozens of Cooper-Young gardeners fling open their gates and welcome visitors to explore their private greenspaces. The gardens are as unique as the gardeners, and the annual Cooper-Young Garden Walk is an opportunity for both to be in the spotlight.
The first secret garden I entered on the overcast Saturday morning of the two-day event was Judi and Buzz Shellbarger’s native and “nature-respectful” garden. Their yard is a Homegrown National Park, part of a national grassroots call-to-action campaign to regenerate biodiversity by removing invasive plants and planting native species.
Judi uses the space along her fenceline to raise trees for Memphis arboretums, including several of the trees that are now at Spanish War Memorial Park. Some of her current saplings, including American chestnuts from the American Chestnut Foundation, are destined for a new greenway along the old railroad line on the back portion of the park ending at South Cox Street.
In her own yard, Judi has been steadily removing non-natives. Along with her native plants, including a beloved serviceberry bush, her garden includes spaces for fairies, toads, and turtles.
A Different Type of Community Event
Kathy and Gerald Dumlao’s gate opens to a boardwalk that takes you past their shade garden to where the sunlight begins. Like many homeowners, their garden has been a work in progress over the two decades it’s been under their care.
The Cooper-Young Garden Walk shows off the historic neighborhood more intimately than the community’s other big events like Cooper-Young Fest, Porchfest, and the Beer Festival. Kathy said the Garden Walk feels very different from the other community festivals. “It’s more low-key and chill, and it’s very relaxed. It has a more soothing vibe.”
This year was the Dumlaos second year on the tour. For Kathy, the most fun part, “is just being able to have the garden open and people coming in and telling us how pretty it is. We know we like it, but it’s nice for other people to give us compliments!” She also appreciates the chance to get inspiration from her neighbors.
“The back porch was my COVID project,” Angie Wallick informed me as we stood next to the raised vegetable garden she shares with her neighbor. She was one of the 25 participants in the first Garden Walk. In the seven years that she has participated, her house and garden have changed considerably, a process she exhibited in photos on the back porch. Over the years, she paved the driveway, painted the house, and got a new front door. She added shutters and a window box under her dog Wally’s hole in the fence where he can say hello to the dog next door.
For Angie, the Cooper-Young Garden Walk is about community and raising money for the garden club’s neighborhood beautification projects, including their current native plantings along Southern Avenue stretching from Cooper to East Parkway. It’s also about being social, especially after the past couple of pandemic years.
Dave and Val Macarsky’s yard also features a prominent COVID project titled “A Window to Our World” along the side of their shed. To keep himself busy while housebound, Dave adapted a door leftover from the Margarita’s restaurant renovation that he found in a dumpster. He added a photograph of himself and Val in Seville, Spain, and “Words of Wit and Wisdom” in pictures frames they found curbside.
Many of the plants in their garden are a product of the neighborhood as well. The Macarskys live in a newly constructed house, which meant they had a blank canvas when they moved in. Neighbors gave them several plants to fill in the gaps. According to Dave, “The network of the Garden Walk and the group of people that have gotten to know each other – that’s the magic of it.”
Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and, as a historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.