Inspirational Southern Gardens

By Mary Ann DeSantis | Photography courtesy of Mary Ann DeSantis, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, and Bellingrath Gardens

Bham Botan Japan Gardens, Birmingham Botanical Gardens

Public gardens are rich in history as well as beauty. The South has several world-renowned gardens, each
with its own unique features. If you are looking for gardening inspiration, you will find it at one of
these magnificent places.
Dixon Gallery and Gardens
Memphis, Tennessee
Claude Monet believed his greatest masterpiece was his garden, and like the great artist, the late Hugo and Margaret Dixon created a magical place in Memphis that has become their living legacy, much like Monet’s Garden became his. It’s appropriate the Dixon Gallery includes two paintings by the French master, highlighting an art collection that rivals those in major museum galleries.
Open to the public since 1976, the Dixon Gallery and Gardens is a highly regarded venue that is a treasure not only for Memphis but for the entire Southeast. Its innovative and diverse programs, both in the arts and in horticulture, reflect the Dixon’s commitment to providing a richer cultural life for future generations. More than 100,000 people a year are touched by the couple’s foresight to bequeath their home and gardens for the public prior to their deaths in 1974. Known for their philanthropy and leadership, the Dixons established the Hugo Foundation, a separate entity that assists in funding the gallery and gardens in perpetuity.
In addition to the 2,000 objects of art in the gallery’s permanent collection and numerous temporary exhibitions throughout the year, the Dixon campus encompasses 17-acres of formal spaces, woodland tracts, and flower gardens. Landscaped to resemble an English park in honor of Mr. Dixon’s British heritage, the outdoor spaces were designed to take advantage of native tree specimens and to preserve the integrity of the surrounding woodlands. Highlighted by “sacred geometry,” a design with ancient Persian origins, the formal gardens offer visitors a place for peaceful seclusion.
But it’s the colorful variety of spring flowers around the property that create breathtaking arrays of color in the spring.
“Everyone looks forward to seeing the daffodils and tulips,” says Amy Lawrence, communications associate for the Dixon. “This year, we’ve planted more than 120,000 bulbs.”
In addition to the formal gardens, the Dixon is also home to the Memphis Garden Club Cutting Garden, which supplies fresh-cut flowers to the museum twice weekly.
“It’s rare that gardens and museums have cutting gardens to provide their own arrangements,” adds Lawrence. “Mrs. Dixon always had fresh-cut flowers in her home and it’s a tribute to her.”

Birmingham Botanical Gardens
Birmingham, Alabama
The traffic near the Birmingham Botanical Gardens was barely audible as I strolled through its thematic Japanese Garden on late afternoon last fall. The day had been chaotic, and the quiet Zen moments were welcomed.
With more than 67 acres, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens is a cornucopia of beauty, nature, and culture. And it’s all free – even the parking – from dawn to dusk.
“We’re a destination where a lot of people walk around or jog through every day,” says Henry Hughes, vice president of education for the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
Indeed, more than 350,000 people visit annually for events, classes, or just to enjoy the 30 thematic gardens. Each garden is classified into one of three types: Collections, Nature, and Culture.
Because my time was limited, I chose the 7.5-acre Japanese Garden, known throughout the South for its exquisite beauty and serenity. Considered one of the Gardens of Culture, the Japanese Garden has been popular since its 1967 debut – two years after the botanical gardens opened near Birmingham’s Mountain Brook area.
The interwoven collection of gardens features traditional Japanese architectural and natural elements, including a karesansui garden with meditative boulders in a raked gravel bed, a bonsai house, a small lake filled with Koi, and a tea garden and house.

“The tea house is one of the best, most authentic tea houses in the nation,” explains Dr. Bob Wendorf, a retired University of Alabama/Birmingham professor who volunteers to keep the Japanese Garden in pristine shape.
Known as the local authority on Japanese aesthetics and culture, Wendorf said the roof of the tea house contained 6,000 handmade copper tiles. He has volunteered for 25 years at the botanical gardens, devoting the last 20 to the Japanese Garden.
“The tea house was a place of peace,” he says. “Japan was a feudal society and very class conscious but in the tea house, everyone was equal.”
Visitors will enjoy all of the thematic gardens equally, as well. The Birmingham Botanical Gardens offers something for everyone – even a small-scale garden full of ideas for homeowners.

Botanical Garden of the Ozarks
Fayetteville, Arkansas
What’s a garden without butterflies? Visitors to the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks don’t have any trouble spotting the winged creatures fluttering around Arkansas’ only butterfly house.
It’s not just the butterfly house, however, that makes this botanical garden different. While most public gardens started as private gardens that were donated or endowed through large contributions, the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks started as a grassroots effort in 1993. Volunteers came together to create “backyard gardens” to teach local residents about gardening.
“Our uniqueness is that the garden is still a passion project among volunteers who keep the place running,” says Liz Atwell, communications coordinator. “We are still a young garden, and we do a lot with a little.”
Today, the whimsical attraction features 12 individually themed backyard gardens clustered around the Great Lawn. The landscaped grounds showcase four seasons of native flora and fauna so there’s always something in bloom.
More than 80,000 people annually visit the Botanical Garden, which Best Things Arkansas named as the second most romantic spot in the state. Not surprisingly, it’s often voted as “Best Place to Get Married” in Northwest Arkansas.

Bellingrath Gardens,
Theodore, Alabama
“Look what a wife will do to a perfectly good fishing camp,” Walter D. Bellingrath said after his wife, Bessie Morse Bellingrath, transplanted a few azaleas to his beloved “Belle Camp” on the Fowl River just south of Mobile. She soon “dressed up” the place with camellias and roses, and the couple eventually moved to the property full time in 1936.
Little did they know Bellingrath Gardens would become a tourist attraction, but they got their first inkling in 1932 when they opened the property to a Depression-weary public for a day of azalea gazing. The response was astounding as the road between Mobile and the gardens became clogged.
Often referred to as the “the charm spot of the Deep South,” the 65-acre Bellingrath Gardens is known for its 250,000 azalea blooms. I visited one May when more than 2,000 roses were in full bloom, and the first glimpse of the signature rose garden was a feast for the eyes — and the nose. In homage to Bellingrath’s civic pride, the layout has a familiar look.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.