A long-time Tennessee Gardener writer profiles his own garden

Story and Photos by Huber P. Conlon

The Conlon Garden in Johnson City was established 32 years ago. Our family (Hugh, Jane, and our three children) had moved from western Iowa to our new home on a ¼-acre residential lot. I (Hugh) was hired by UT Extension as an area horticulturist for 33 counties. The previous owners, the Millers, were avid vegetable and fruit gardeners. We continued growing some veggies, but the four fruit trees had to be removed to make space for my plant addiction. 

Summer-blooming hydrangeas and trumpet vine (Campsis radicans).

Immediately, the outdoor grounds became “Dad’s garden.” My job put me in contact with plant breeders and growers throughout the Southeast. Trees and shrubs, what I call “the bones of the garden,” were planted. They included ‘October Glory’ red maple (Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’), Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa), cornelian cherry (C. mas), paperbark maple (A. griseum), three star magnolias (Magnolia stellata), and three flowering dogwoods (C. florida). Now, 32-plus years later, these plants anchor our landscape.

Fall-blooming Camellia ‘Shishigashira’ along a garden path.

Initially, our landscape was a 50:50 mix of lawn grass and trees/shrubs/flowers/veggies. Our kids played softball and soccer on the back lawn, but gradually outgrew the space and headed off to the nearby elementary school fields. Much of the lawn was swallowed up by additional arboreal gems, such as Asian and native fringetrees (Chionanthus spp.), alternate leaf dogwood (C. alternifolia), gold leaf dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘Goldrush’) and Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica ‘Biltmore’). 

Water garden encircled by various perennials.

The Conlon garden is home to three plant collections: 20 varieties of Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), 14 hardy camellias (Camellia spp.), and numerous dwarf conifers. The Japanese maples started out as tiny inexpensive 6-month-old grafts. The fledgling plants were nurtured in a nursery bed for two to three years before being permanently set and cared for. 

November fall color of ‘October Glory’ red maple.

The hardy camellia collection started out as personal research over the past 15 years. Tennessee gardeners had been taught that camellias grew well only in Atlanta and points farther south. Camellias have become a wonderful success story. I continue to speak and write about camellias on my website and in magazine articles. 

Pink dogwood and ‘Conoy’ viburnum.

The conifer collection is the direct result of membership in the American Conifer Society. Several gems were purchased at the society’s annual meetings.

The garden is designed for four seasons of color. Perennials – including native wildflowers, bulbs, and ground covers – are planted throughout. Flowering bulbs begin to emerge in late January with winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), and trout lilies (Erythronium spp.). Next up are daffodils (Narcissus spp.), hyacinths (Hyacinthus spp.), and tulips (Tulipa spp.) in spring; lilies (Lilium spp.) and pineapple lilies (Eucomis spp.) in summer; surprise lilies (Lycoris squmigera) and autumn crocus (Colchicum spp.) finish out the year. 

LEFT: Star magnolias blooming in mid-March. MIDDLE: ‘Fuji’ cherry blooming in March. RIGHT: Summer annuals, including ‘Star Orange’ zinnias (Z. angustifolia ‘Star Orange’) and white fan flowers (Scaevola spp., cvs.), with Ajuga and Buddleia.

Chinese and vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis mollis, H. vernalis) start blooming in late January into February along with Chinese paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) and cornelian cherry. Spring is the best time to view the garden’s diverse collection of Magnolia, Viburnum, Deutzia, Weigela, Rhododendron, and mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia). In summer, collections of Hydrangea, crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia x), and roses (Rosa spp.) are blooming. Pockets of colorful summer annuals fill any voids in the garden. 

I welcome opportunities to try new plants. Recently, when rose rosette disease was diagnosed in a bed of Knock Out roses, I replaced the entire planting with Bobo hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Ilvobo’). To accent autumn flowering, I’ve added fall-blooming Aster, Chrysanthemum, Anemone, goldenrod (Solidago rugosa), and toadlilies (Tricyrtis hirta). Replacing summer annuals with Viola and pansies (V. x wittrockiana) in early fall finishes out the planting year.

A curbside planting of assorted annuals and perennials.

Shade has also become a significant challenge throughout the garden. Several gardening friends have donated native woodland favorites, such as Trillium, Jack–in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), and celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum). I have added several shade-loving perennials, including Lenten roses (Helleborus spp.), fairy wings (Epimedium spp.), dwarf variegated Solomon seals (Polygonatum spp., cvs.), bleeding hearts (Dicentra spp.), Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla), cranesbills (Geranium spp.), and numerous ferns and Hosta.

I have constructed a network of concrete and rock paths to trek through the garden almost every day. Reducing garden maintenance continues to be a primary goal. Drifts of shade perennials, such as cranesbills, hostas and ferns, are being planted under trees and shrubs to reduce weeding. Beds are mulched on a regular basis.

LEFT: ‘Prairifire’ crabapple (Malus ‘Prairifire’) blooms. MIDDLE: ‘Conoy’ viburnum (V. x burkwoodii ‘Conoy’). RIGHT: ‘Purple Ghost’ Japanese maple in early spring.

Now, in my retirement years, I write a garden blog, whatgrowsthere.com, and I maintain a small nursery area where new plant introductions, mostly perennials and young flowering shrubs, wind up for evaluation. Few will be planted in the garden; most will find a home in friends’ gardens or given away at local gardening meetings. Joggers, dog walkers, and neighbors frequently come by to see what’s blooming.

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