Historic York home’s expansive front yard holds unique urban forest

By Sharron Johnson

A backset lot on York Street, one of a handful in Cooper-Young, is our October yard of the month.

Eloise Wood is the proud owner of this slice of our community at 2244 York. She is the mother of one son and grandmother to four grandsons. What I mean by a backset property is the house is situated at the very back quarter of the lot leaving 75 percent of the site for a front garden. Having so much of your garden space out for all to see obliges you to make that space delightful and inviting for all that pass.

Eloise has done more than become a homeowner; she has adopted a very old weeping willow oak tree that resides there. This mighty oak is located in the almost nonexistent back yard. The tree has to be over 100 years old. The house was built in 1914 and is the oldest house in that area. The house and tree are connected at the hip you could say, figuratively and literally.

The tree is the cornerstone of the site. It creates a dense shade on the most of the property and the neighbors’ trees complete a forest setting. There is something to be said for a yard that has been transformed into forest like glade. Eloise has successfully accomplished this in 10 years, which is a very short time when you really think about it. Gardening is like seasons; there are only so many in our life time. Makes you take stock, huh?

When you drive through the northeast quadrant of the neighborhood, head over to York off of Cox St. On the left is a feast for the eyes as butterflies flit about like mad. There is a south-facing full sun exposed wildflower meadow at the parkway and just beyond the sidewalk. The flowers are so densely packed that they appear to have been seeded by nature, which adds to the charm of this garden. A stone path connects the public and private areas. One of my favorites native plants, ageratum, is used in this space.

According to the web site Gardening Know How, “For those new to flower gardening, you may be wondering, ‘What is ageratum and how is it cultivated?’ Ageratum houstonianum, a native of Mexico, is among the most commonly planted ageratum varieties. Ageratums offer soft, round, fluffy flowers in various shades of blue, pink or white, with blue being most common.” (For more information see the article “How To Plant Ageratum” at gardeningknowhow.com.)

The driveway creates an edge between Eloise and a neighbor and keeps all of the garden to one side. She has one of those “old school” driveways that was created by adding two concrete strips for each tire track. In between is a moss turf filling in the voids like grout. There is a huge azalea and an abelia shrub at the entry of the property’s edge along with crepe myrtle.

Both sides of the property’s edges are planted with understory trees and shrubs that are mature and lush with an emphasis on natural setting. To the west of the property is an un-edged planting bed laid out in an arch formation that has a grassy patch with moss peeking out from under the grass blades in the middle. It’s as if a small hole was created by nature from a felled tree eons ago to let in just enough sunlight to ele out a place to observe what nature has to offer. There are many perennials such as oxalis, pink flowering clover, and hosta. According to Eloise, 35 varieties are used as under planting, creating a gradual stair-step effect.

You can tell this gardener is concerned about the wildlife this urban garden can afford. She tends migratory birds, such as woodpeckers, finches and hummingbirds and our domestic birds as well. Squirrels will nearly shake your hand if you sit still long enough. The house looks like a doll house sitting in the back, painted a light yellow with a lighter yellow trim and a dark green shutter that completes the fairytale look.

You have a long history in Cooper-Young. You told me you began your young life on Cox, right around the corner from where you are now.

I was born on Cox 70 years ago and moved away several times for marriage, etc. But like a homing pigeon always came back to Cooper-Young. I walked through the alleys to Peabody Elementary, stopping on the way home from school at the soda fountain at the drug store for ice cream. Back in those days we didn’t even lock our doors.

When did you move into your house?

I moved into my current house 10 years ago. I also have lived on two other houses on Cox and my current house on York.

Your house is set back deep on the parcel. I know of only three other lots like this. Is that a reason you picked this property?

This is the exact reason I bought this house. I was around the corner at my sister’s for Thanksgiving and drove by it. They were putting up the sign. I bought it that day. I was living in Cordova and missing Midtown and had always loved this house because it looked like a forest with the big trees on the lot.

Did you attend school at Peabody, Fairview, or Central?

I attended all three schools. My great nephew is currently a student at Peabody.

What was your profession and where did you work?

I was in the business world many years, working with my father who was an accountant. He built his office where Soul Fish is and did Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins’ tax returns in their earlier years. I also was vice president of an advertising agency and later became a mental health therapist working in Arkansas.

Who or what inspired you to pick up a shovel?

My mother loved trees and loved to be outside when it stormed. I use to love hiking on the trails in Overton Park as a child. Most of my love for gardening came from my love of the woods and meadows.

What was your yard like when you moved in?

My yard had four huge old weeping oaks and old shrubs. It had no flower beds except for a few nandina and old shrub roses.

How would you describe your garden style?

Without my even realizing it, I have recreated a forest that opens to a meadow, what I loved to hike in for years and because of health reasons am no longer able to do. I have observed nature all my life and replicate what its taught me. I use no pesticides … just a lot of diversity to create an complete ecosystem where I don’t have to interfere. I mulch my flower beds with the leaves that fall from the trees and during the summer when I cut back green material I allow it to compost in my beds. I allow spider webs to stay in place to do their job and encourage all types of pollinators and plant native flowers and plants. The front part of my yard was planted to be a butterfly garden and teams with life now. Of course the hummingbirds also love this bed.

What are the pros and cons to having 99 percent of your yard on display to the street?

My neighbors love walking through my butterfly garden and have thanked me many times for planting it. I don’t really see any cons. If people want to enjoy my garden I’m happy for them to come by and more than glad to share plants in the spring.”

Tell us about your oak tree.

My neighbors call me ‘the Tree Lady.’ I have a 100-year-old weeping willow oak tree that I seem to have made it my mission in life to protect from the butchering that MLG&W enjoys doing to our beautiful old trees every five years. I would love to see the Midtown neighborhood associations work in conjunction with MLG&W before the next butchering. An article came out in the Commercial Appeal one day prior to the last time the trees were cut. It was about what an asset we had in our old trees. I had just watched one of these old trees being cut in half.  Well I ended up laying out in the street in front of their tree trimming equipment and called all the TV stations and got some press and of course was escorted off by the police.

Would you tell us about the plants in the parkway and the front, “meadow.” 

My butterfly garden has many plants I’ve bought at the Lichterman Plant Sale, Dixon Plant Sale, and along the ditches driving from Forrest City where I worked to Memphis (always keep a shovel in my car). I have goldenrod, cosmos, butterflyweed, primrose, milkweed, salvia leucantha, joe pyeweed, native ageratum, native begonia, zinnia, swamp milkweed, shrimp plant (annual in our area).

While touring your garden, I noted many understory trees and shrubs surrounding the property line, such as hydrangea , Japanese maple, dogwood, crepe myrtle, mahonia, rose of Sharon, and a redbud. Did I miss any?

Pomegranate, wild cherry trees, loropetalum, and abelia.

 You were a nature hiker. Tell us about that. 

The area where the Hub garage and the concrete buildings next to it use to be a meadow. I made trails through there as a 4-year-old and hiked along the railroad tracks and along the trails in Overton Park. I have hiked in almost every national park, my favorites being on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon with my son on lush trails way back in the canyon and in Alaska where I moved when I was middle age crazy. I hiked!

Is there a best season for the passerby to view your garden?

Fall. Although every August 14th the hummingbirds make their pilgrimage to my garden. Just as they do down in Holly Springs, Mississippi for their annual hummingbird festival.

What, if any, future plans are for your space?

The meadow area at the street. I need to alter the terrain to accommodate my bad back issues. Maybe raised beds are in my future.

There is no right or wrong way to garden. Just do what brings joy and happiness into your space and share your story with your neighbors. Thank you Eloise for coming back home to Cooper Young!

To submit a garden for consideration for Yard of the Month, contact Sharron Johnson at Goddessharron@yahoo.com.

Author: LampLighter

The voice of Cooper-Young, a vibrant, diverse neighborhood to live, work and play, in the heart of Midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

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