Story and photos by Sharron Johnson
Ah, Memphis is a great place to be in August. I don’t mean that statement to be facetious. It’s a heartfelt statement. Memphis can boast many favorable seasons, months, and events, but the waning side of summer can be a doozy or a dud here in the Mid-South. Daytime highs in the mid- to low-90s then at sunset mid 80s. The cicadas screaming sometimes at a deafening decibel. Mosquitos hovering in a bouncing motion around your ankles just waiting to snag a draw from your blood bank.
Every August, the Cooper Young Business Association festival committee is reaching the deadline for all the final checklists to put on the Cooper Young Festival slated to commence September 14.
August is also Elvis month. He died 42 years ago at the age of 42.
Well, now onto a garden that I feel is one of the top in the neighborhood. Chris Harris is the “dirty hand award winner” for August. This is the first shotgun that I’ve visited for yard of the month. Along Cox street near Oliver is a row of four shotguns. They were all built at different dates, starting at 1911, 1912, 1920 and ending with 1922. Our Yard of the Month is at 932 Cox and is the one built in 1920.
These “original” tiny houses are generally less than 1,000 square foot and the lots are equally small. This house looks as if it was snatched right out of New Orleans and plopped right here in CY. Now that I think of it, the Wizard of Oz comes to mind. I kept looking for the ruby slippers because this garden was like a dream where the phrase “there’s no place like home” kept whispering in my ear. This is a sweet house with a white painted wood clapboard. A gray painted fish scale gable front is the icing on the cake. Wrought iron handrails and a black painted front door shutter crafted from bead-Urbanboard adds to the New Orleans aura.
This house sits on a hill facing west. It is a totally shaded lot, front and back. The neighbors provided all the mature deciduous trees needed to accomplish the lushness this little slice of delight offers. This tiny sloped yard has been terraced with found stones, bricks, concrete chunks and rebar. These elements are used to create interest and fill niches to the brim with all sorts of evergreens, perennials and annuals. A mature redbud acts as a parasol in a New Orleans Jazz funeral. On the opposite side is a fig tree kept in check by Chris’ keen eye. Design plays a huge part on how this oasis is presented. Groups of three are prevalent throughout. There are pot placements that follow the design standard. They are filled with tall plants, filler plants, and those trailing out of the pots scattered around like jewelry. All the plants were well thought out, and there is a pleasing symmetry from one side of the space to the other. Every nook and cranny has purpose and is preened.
Moving down the tiny driveway is the largest and oldest gardenia bush I’ve ever seen. It’s very tall and has been trimmed into a tree specimen. It’s taller than the house. It leads me to think it may be as old as the house. This spot has optimal conditions for gardenias. It is blocked from cold northern winds and gets just enough sun in the winter and early spring through those deciduous trees mentioned earlier. Chris has taken a chunk of the driveway and created a seating/ conversation site with a large rug underfoot to complete the cozy factor.
Making my way to the secret back garden I find the wow I was expecting. Wood chips are laid as a runner carpet that leads to a spiral path reminiscent of the yellow brick road where Dorothy and Toto skipped merrily. The first stop on the path leads me to a large flagstone threshold and rustic stone bench carved during a time gone by. As the visitor travels around, there is a bottle tree and a red flame sculpture whirly gig. A lime green glider offers another place to rest and adds a touch of whimsy. Found French doors are set up as a roof to resemble a tiny stage structure. A large wooden deck with three stairs offers extra seating for parties. The deck has a fabric gazebo trimmed with more French doors to keep guests enveloped in hospitality. The plantings are plenty and repeated thoroughly and throughout the front, side and back. One of my faves was the use of 19 privet hedges trimmed to a topiary. Yes, there are 19. I counted them. Gold dust japonica is another one. These add color to a shade garden like no other, and they are tough as nails. This garden was on the 2019 Cooper Young Garden Walk for the first time, and he’s already committed to the 2020 event, so if you missed it hold tight.
Where are you from?
I’m not a native Memphian. My hometown is Canton, MS. I’ve been a resident of Memphis for 18 years now.
When did you move into your home?
I took possession of my current home October 17, 2016
Why did you choose Cooper Young?
I like to think of it as Cooper-Young chose me. At the time I was looking for my next home, I knew I specifically wanted to stay in Midtown. My definition of Midtown was as far north as Jackson Ave to as far south as Southern Ave, from the west at I-240 to East Parkway. With the help of a dear friend, I found my current home and the location was perfect; it was the Cooper-Young neighborhood! As any realtor will say, it’s all about LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. I never specified Cooper-Young as my next home, but when the opportunity presented itself I couldn’t and wouldn’t consider any other place to live.
What is your profession?
Tell us about your family. Are you from a large family?
I’ve always considered myself to be from a relatively large family! Even though I was an only child, there was no shortage of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents when I was growing up. At the present time, there’s no significant other, life-partner, or partner in crime.
Tell the reader about your garden style.
Well, if it’ll grow, I’ll put it in my garden. My style is definitely “trial and error”; I ain’t afraid to dig it up and move it. I’m not afraid to admit that I drive the neighborhood the night before trash pick-up searching for what others have thrown to the curb in the name of trash. I’ve also been known to jump over in a dumpster or two. You’ve heard it before, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” So to answer the question regarding my garden style, I’ll say eclectic, very eclectic!
Where did you gain your garden skills and how long have you been digging in the dirt?
My joy of “digging in the dirt” all started with my grandmother. She taught me how to handle a pickaxe, a garden hoe, pruning shears, and a shovel. When I was old enough to push a lawn mower, my grandfather turned those responsibilities over to me, and my grandmother supervised and directed me in her yard. The rest is history, and I’m still going at it!
Tell the readers about your plants?
The plants in my yard I’ve been told are native. I only plant things that I like and that I enjoy, I also plant plants that I’ve had success with in the past; however, I’m not afraid to try plants that I’ve never grown before. There are plants in my garden from numerous places: my hometown of Canton, MS; Jackson, MS; Effingham, IL; Caruthersville, MO; previous neighbors, off the side of the road in Northwest Shelby county; and just about every lawn and garden center in the city. Now, this is the first time I’ve ever had a total shade garden, and that’s been my biggest challenge. All gardeners know that the selection of plants with color for a sun garden are plentiful. Unfortunately, it’s not the same for a shade garden; therefore, I continue to use the plants that I know will thrive in the shade.
You have a garden that is like a park. What was your inspiration?
The 1st time I saw my current backyard, all I saw in my mind was a park-like setting. Y’all, I had no idea how the hell that was going to happen, but it did! My inspiration was and still is my personal motto: GO BIG OR GO HOME!
What are your passions and pastimes?
As for my garden, I’m passionate about creating something to be very proud of and something that others will enjoy after I’m gone. Long after I’m no longer in the Cooper-Young community, y’all are still gonna be walking past my place saying, “Yep, that’s the landscape that Chris created!”
Future plans for your space?
There are still a few unfinished projects. While preparing for the Cooper-Young Garden Walk this past spring, I started what I was calling a “garden shed.” During the garden walk one of my visitors ask me if I entertained a lot and suggested something I had never considered. Needless to say, that project took on a whole new direction, and it’s still not complete, which is okay! Y’all gardeners know that our yards are never done!
This is a tiny plot of land that contains a Shotgun home. Did you find that a challenge or a happy-dance moment?
Remember: GO BIG OR GO HOME! Because the lot is small, I had to go big. Because the lot is small, that’s why I wanted — and got — a full, lush garden. Again, my biggest and most frustrating challenge has been getting used to a shade garden.
What are some of your favorite things about your garden and what was the biggest challenge?
What I absolutely love about my garden is how I utilized every square inch of space in my small yard! What continues to be my biggest challenge is also what I’m enjoying the most and that’s the shade aspect. I’m still learning what will and can thrive in a shade garden.
Any words of inspiration to your neighbors on how they too can achieve the beautiful garden you’ve created?
You have to adopt Nike’s mentality and “JUST DO IT.”
What would you tell a visitor about the Cooper-Young community?
Cooper-Young is where it’s at, yall!