A Rider's Journal
Photo of the train caboose car at Oaklawn Garden
The railway caboose is a familiar sight to drivers on Poplar Pike.

Germantown TN—Sunday was another perfect April day, mild and sunny with trees leafing out and flowers blooming everywhere I looked. I had finished my yard chores and washed el Bandido, but the weather was just too nice to spend the afternoon doing chores indoors.

So I saddled up on my freshly-washed steed and rode a mile-and-a-half up my street to Oaklawn Garden.

Oaklawn Garden is a semi-public park featuring a small home, hundreds of flowering bulbs, azaleas of every size and color, and a variety of trees and shrubs.

From Old Poplar Pike, passing traffic can view a railroad boxcar (from 1889) and caboose (from 1944), old-fashioned railroad crossing signs and depot building, and maybe catch a glimpse of the old fire engine (from 1942) parked in what was once the gardens' florist shop. At this time of year, even the train cars are nearly obscured by the profusion of flowers.

Throughout the grounds you will find a jumble of haphazardly-placed historical artifacts from schools, railroads, fire stations and jails in Memphis, Germantown and Shelby County.

The early-spring daffodils were bloomed out and the irises (Tennessee's state flower) were just starting to show flower heads. But the explosion of red, pink, purple, orange and white azalea blossoms and their faint spicy-sweet scent in the breeze were more than enough to make my little trip worthwhile.

On my walk, I spotted blue jays and robins searching for insects, and the occasional hoof print in the mud left by the deer that make their home in the adjacent Morgan Woods and C.O. Franklin Park.

Harry and Becky Cloyes make Oaklawn Garden their home. The Cloyes are both 83 and live in a house built in 1854.  They pass the days sitting in the garden and greeting guests and talking horticulture and telling stories of old Germantown.

After enjoying a walk through the gardens, I sat and talked with the Cloyes for a bit.

History of Oaklawn Garden

The six acres of Oaklawn Garden were part of a 20-acre tract that was purchased in 1918 by Fritz Hussy and Mamie Cloyes. Mamie, Harry's mother, was the avid collector of daffodils who laid out the formal beds, amassing a collection of over three hundred varieties of the bulbs.

The original tract was part of a nearly 500-acre parcel purchased in 1854. At that time, the land was remote. It was nearly a mile up the railroad track (part of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad that fronts the property) to Germantown.

It's another 20 miles along the same railroad track to downtown Memphis and the Mississippi River ports. Even as late as the 1950s, when automobiles were common, Germantown was a remote city separate from the hubbub of Memphis. And, as Harry points out, Oaklawn Garden was outside Germantown city limits.

Over the years, the Cloyes sold 14 acres of woods to the city (now part of Morgan Woods park), with the six acres of Oaklawn Gardens to be deeded to the city after the Cloyes' passing.

A natural approach to gardening

Harry espouses a natural approach to gardening. He promotes use of manure tea instead of chemical fertilizers, use of leaves instead of commercial mulch, and a natural arrangement of plants rather than a formal garden.

"They wanted to make it like Bellingrath (a much larger garden and estate in Mobile, Alabama) but I just told them no," he said. "I like it to look natural."

Natural with an unusual variety of plants, including a redwood tree, a Japanese maple, rhododendrons that are native to cooler, high-altitude climates, and native salmon-colored azaleas.

"You used to find those azaleas everywhere in the woods, but not any more," Harry said. "The gardeners have dug them all up and you don't see them any more." They look like the azaleas that grow on the Blue Ridge Parkway, but they would never survive our 100-plus degree July days.

But that's what I would say about the redwood tree. Harry explained how he nursed the tree past sapling stage. "I cut a piece of pipe at a 45-degree angle and stuck it three feet in the ground. I watered it through that pipe, and it just sent roots deep in the ground, following the water."

Once the tree's roots found the ground water (much of West Tennessee is wetlands), it just took hold and grew. "I asked if I should top it out, but they told me to just let it grow," he adds. "They just keep sending roots out deeper and deeper and it just gets taller."

The Cloyes don't do much of the gardening any more. Master Gardeners, a volunteer organization which maintains public parks and helps landscape Habitat for Humanity houses, comes weekly to keep the grounds clean and maintain the plants.

There is a lot of maintenance needed. Many of the historical objects are slowly sinking into the ground or falling over. Outbuildings are rotting away and need to be totally renovated or torn down.

I wonder what will become of the garden when it transfers to the city.  I expect Germantown will likely go through the garden and do a general clean-up, removing dead or dying plants and rearranging historical items in a more orderly and tasteful manner. It will remain natural, but natural as Germantown defines it.

(Last year, the city purchased the 10-acre Ocean View Farms, adjacent to Oaklawn Gardens, to add it to the 100-plus acres of Morgan Woods, Franklin Park and "Cloyes Gardens", as the city labels Oaklawn.)

I particularly like visiting the garden because it reminds me of what I am trying to do with my back yard. As I fill in with additional trees and shrubs and reduce the amount of yard, I am trying to add in plants that will be self-sufficient, require little or no pruning, be drought-tolerant, and provide some winter color when the trees are dormant.

I jokingly call it my "white trash back yard". Glass garden stakes provide color when nothing is blooming. I hope to add a bottle tree this fall, to compliment the gazing balls and garden gnomes.

After visiting with the Cloyes for a bit, I saddled up and rode a mile east back towards home, stopping briefly at Fort Germantown park.

Afterward, it was a short ride through the neighborhood back to my home, where I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon watching the birds eat from the feeders...and wondered where I could acquire an old railroad car or gas station pumps for my own gardens.