This is a blog about improving the grounds around my house in Knoxville, Tennessee. It includes plans, problems and successes in landscaping, planting, tending and harvesting (where appropriate). It is a journey and I invite you to come along, share observations and—I hope—celebrate little victories.
About the House
The house was built for a University of Tennessee botany professor and his family, circa 1926-1928. (Its coal chute door is dated 1926; it first shows up in the City Directory in 1928.) Henry M. Jennison was also a wildlife technician for the National Park Service at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a special field agent for both the Bureau of Plant Industry and the Bureau of Entomology of the US Department of Agriculture.
Jennison cataloged 1,500 of the 1,660 plant species now known to inhabit the Smokies. He and his wife, Alice Laura (Washburn) Jennison, had three children. I can visualize the two sons as they stoked the basement fireplace with coal, slid down the banister and probably tormented and doted on their much younger sister. The Jennisons lived in the house until Henry’s death in 1940.
The house is mentioned in White Collar Radicals: TVA’s Knoxville Fifteen, the New Deal, and the McCarthy Era, by Aaron Pucell. The passage reads:
During the summer of 1937, the need for cheap rent led several TVA employees to sublet a house together. Henry Jennison, a botany professor at the University of Tennessee and active member of the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, spent the summers in New England. It is likely that he met a number of young TVA employees on hikes in the Smokies, and it is certain that Jennison agreed to sublet his house to Todd, Frazier, Hart, Bridgman and Zien, and TVA employee Edward Glazek during the summer of 1937. Zien emerged as house manager, “planning the meals, directing the work of the colored maid, and purchasing the groceries.” At sixty dollars per month for rent, the house was not only economical but served as an important meeting place for young TVA radicals during the summer months of 1937. While there, the Jennison house residents held study groups to discuss politics, philosophy and the Spanish Civil War.
After Jennison’s sudden death at age 55, there were several interim owners, including a family that lived here for a couple of decades. More recently, a house flipper made an attempt to renovate the original plaster walls, but he, too, died young. I bought the house from the bank and sank all the rest of my money into complete plumbing and wiring jobs, plus providing the first-ever set of heat pumps. With the money cushion gone, and on a tiny fixed income, I am determined to bring some cheer to the curb appeal here.
When it was built, the house, which sits atop a hill near downtown Knoxville, must have had a nice view of the Smoky Mountains, and possibly the river below. Now, houses and trees across the street vie to obscure much of the vista. The best viewing is from the upstairs bedrooms in winter months.
About the Yard
While it is obvious that there were early efforts to create interesting and eye-catching grounds, decades of poor maintenance have muddled the look and the place needs a great deal of work to re-establish its gloried spot as the queen of the street.
The front yard includes a large, majestic pine in one corner, four azalea bushes (one ancient, with masses of small blossoms, the other three small with larger blooms), an overgrown holly, the large stump of another holly, and plenty of wild garlic/onions. The side yard is narrow and has two ancient dogwood trees that still bloom riotously each spring, plus a large stand of acuba against the end wall of the sun porch. The back yard holds a concrete slab (humorously elevated to the status of “lanai” by a neighbor) that was the base of a now-defunct carport, a stretch of gravel for parking where only mud once existed, and a grassy stretch along the back of the lot just before a narrow stand of trees and a city alley. The property stops at the edge of the alley-cum-driveway, providing only a two-foot strip as the “yard” on the western end of the house.
The front yard receives both morning and afternoon sun, since the house faces south, whereas the back yard get a short amount of afternoon light because first the house and then trees in the lot next door cast long shadows there. Only flowers and low-growing shrubs will be considered for the front yard, as the view of the mountains dictates. The entire front yard slopes downward from house to street, with a steeper drop-off just before meeting the road. The back yard will have flowers along the edge of the lanai, herbs and vegetables in containers, and a privacy fence along the alley. The western strip already has well-established shrubbery, which will be pruned annually.
I am the fool who bought this wonderful place. I had high hopes of finding an editing job after I moved here, but, as an article in the recently folded MetroPulse indicated, Knoxville is a place to leave because there are no editing jobs here. Because this limits my income to a smaller-than-most Social Security check each month, I need to rely on my creativity to wreak change in my yard. I was reared by a woman who was born in a log cabin deep in the Alabama woods before women “got the vote.” When the Great Depression came along, her family barely noticed, since they were dirt farmers accustomed to times of want. She taught me economies that I practice even now in the twenty-first century of glut. (If you need extra twist ties or Popsicle sticks, let me know where to send them.)
This frugal husbandry will dictate the choices of plants I acquire. While I yearn to include Dr. Jennison’s discovery of Conradina verticillata in the slope at street level—which I hope to terrace—it is endangered, so I will transplant a hearty runner from the base of the alley-side strip. The best neighbors in the world live across the street (“We love to see lights on at your house again at last” they say) and I want them to enjoy a better view than my ramp-infested lawn.
I do not have the brain power of my mother, who could quote Latin names of plants in the 1980s which she learned in college in the early 1940s. But I do have her love of growing things and hope her green thumb will be channeled through me during this project. If I can manage to lure more birds, bees and butterflies to the place, that will be even better.
Dr. Jennison is mentioned in Terra Incognita: An Annotated Bibliography of the Great Smoky Mountains, 1544-1934, edited by Anne Bridges, Russell Clement, Ken Wise. There are descriptions of his activities in the Smokies, and his cited publications are The Flowers of the Great Smokies…and the Birds and A Preliminary Checklist of the Wild Flowers and the Ferns of Tennessee.
Other publications by Jennison, which number fourteen, range from 1911 to 1939.
A brief biography of Jennison is at http://plants.jstor.org/stable/10.5555/al.ap.person.bm000151993.
Here is the coal chute door, beside the back door that leads to the mud room and kitchen:
More links can be found on the Contacts and Links page.