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Gardening Secrets

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Story by Lee Rennick | Photos by Erin Kosko, Lee Rennick and Discovery Center 

“Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.” – Alfred Austin

When I arrived at the home of Karen Bingham, owner of one of the gardens that will be a part of the 2024 Discovery Center Secret Garden Tour happening June 8 and 9, she was working in her yard. Removing her dirt-covered gloves, she said hello and invited me into her home. She radiated a peaceful energy, the kind one feels when digging in the dirt. 

Her garden is a tribute to her father, the person who inspired the passion she took up in 2006, after a divorce. After her father’s death, she and her brother dug up many of the plants in his garden and moved them to their own. Her father’s plantings are the heart of her current garden. Daylilies were his greatest passion. 

“I never had an interest as a child,” said Bingham. “I took it up later in life.”

When she first moved into her current home, there were lots of easy-care bushes, a large fire pit surrounded by lava rock and an infinity of open grass. Now, the space is filled with curved beds lushly filled with mostly perennial plantings. She cleaned out the lava rock, built a large wood deck under the trees and added lots of metal art and sculpture on the side of her mid-century home and out in the yard. 

“I saw a lot of formal gardens while traveling in England,” noted Bingham, “and I knew that is not what I wanted. Then I saw Anne Hathaway’s cottage, and I was inspired by her country garden.”

She loves the botanical gardens in St. Louis, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois, plus she goes to Cheekwood Estate and Gardens in Nashville every year. And before her parents passed away, she was able to take them to the United States Botanical Garden in Washington, D.C.
Bingham suggests starting a garden by getting plantings from other people, as she got hers from her father’s garden. She also has dianthus from the beds around a bank in her hometown in Indiana. And she is a big supporter of plant swaps.

Not using a landscape architect, Bingham designed the yard herself. While the faux brick edging was there when she moved into her home, there are now islands of flower beds surrounded by a gentle sea of lawn. She put in all the edging and built those beds herself. Plus, she cleaned out the old beds and replanted much of them.

“A garden is a lot of work,” said Bingham, “and I didn’t have the time when I was working, but now it is my passion, as it was my father’s.”

She has created a peaceful hideaway where one could easily enjoy a cup of coffee on an early summer morning or get lost in a book on a warm afternoon.

“I do enjoy the space,” said Birmingham, “but I don’t sit around a lot. I am usually working in the garden.”

“The garden reconciles human art and wild nature, hard work and deep pleasure, spiritual practice and the material world.” – Sir Thomas Moore

Bonnie and Dwayne Wilkinson were also inspired by loss to delve into gardening. After losing their daughter, Tiffany, to cancer, they built a memorial garden to honor her memory. That experience kept them busy and allowed them to turn their grief into something beautiful, complete with sculptures of their daughter’s favorite frogs. 

While Bingham’s garden was inspired by the wild splendor of English country gardens, the Wilkinson’s garden is filled with creative energy blending Bonnie’s love of art and décor with Dwayne’s knowledge of plants and building skills. Their garden is a collection of many themed spaces under massive shade trees. 

After building the memorial garden in 2009, the Wilkinsons added an outdoor kitchen and a network of stone floored living spaces designed by landscape architect Anne Hosfield of Southern Creations. The spaces she designed include a seating area with a fountain, a dining space and an area for a hot tub. 

“She did such a great job,” said Bonnie. 

They love to add items they have purchased on their world travels and bits of this and that they have found locally to their yard. It is a true blend of nature and manmade. Many of the arbors and decorative pieces have been built by Dwayne, a retired aeronautics engineer. He also wired a stop light they found in a trash heap, which hangs in their outdoor kitchen, to change colors. 

A collection of gnomes peeking out from hedges and vintage wheelbarrows converted into platers heavy with spring annuals provide the theme for the back area. You can almost imagine them whistling a hi-ho as they joined the Wilkinsons in their gardening adventures.
Their Asian garden offers a collection of items they purchased on oversees travels in the Far East. The entrance is a Torii Gate built by Dwayne and paper lanterns hang from the trees. It offers a sense of peace and a pergola festooned with clematis, wisteria and grape vines. 
“I love clematis,” said Bonnie. “It grows well in shade, and most of our garden is in shade, so we have to be careful about what we plant in it.”

As we tour their gardens, they tell amusing stories about the meaning of the many items scattered throughout. There is a frog purchased in Bangkok to honor the memory of their daughter, a mantle purchased in one of the little shops in Bell Buckle and buckets hanging from a tree that Dwayne designed using an antique pully system. 

“And the sculptures of the boy and girl children by the swing garden we named after our own children,” said Bonnie. Now their grandchildren and great grandchildren enjoy the gardens. A few of their toys scattered among the décor. 

One of Bonnie’s favorite places to find yard art and décor is Green House Ministries’ Garden Patch Thrift Shop. One fountain is decorated with large metal balls she found there. 

“I never completed the Master Gardener’s class final exam that I took during COVID,” said Dwayne. “I am trying to talk Bonnie into taking it with me this fall so I can get my ‘official’ accreditation.”

“I’d like that,” said Bonnie. “You should join us.”

“There is nothing that is comparable to it, as satisfactory or as thrilling as gathering vegetables one has grown.” – Alice B. Toklas

Sherry Mosier’s yard is also a retirement project, but it is mainly filled with a large vegetable garden pregnant with promise and a fairy garden housing a collection of herbs. All of which she uses to cook with. 

“And by the time the Secret Garden Tour happens, the wall of sunflowers on the edge of my vegetable garden will be about shoulder high,” said Mosier. 

Mosier’s garden backs up against a pasture filled with cattle, who like to snack on many of the plants along the fence line, so she has to be careful what she plants there. She is still experimenting and learning, being the newest Master Gardener in the group. She didn’t delve deeply into her garden until retiring in 2017 from being a surgical nurse. 

“I love all gardens,” said Mosier, “but not all types of gardens are appropriate to your surroundings.” 

The clay soil of Tennessee was the hardest thing for Mosier to deal with. While some gardeners put in crop plants to keep the soil going, she prefers to work in a good organic mulch. While various types of manure are the favorite of some gardeners to break down the clay and feed the plantings, Mosier uses a dash of Miracle Grow to help the flowers with blooming, but she prefers to use fish emulsion. 

“I call it ‘fish poop,’” added Mosier with a smile. 

Careful to keep the status of her organic vegetable garden, Mosier prefers to keep Miracle Grow out of the equation there. It has meant a lot of work breaking down the clay soil by working in tons of organic mulch. It has been quite an effort, but it has paid off.

She also does a lot to draw natural pollinators and birds. She is especially a fan of humming birds. 

Like the other gardeners who will be opening their home to the Secret Garden Tour, she enjoys yard art. Much of it she has found from craft fairs. She loves to support local artists. 

“I don’t do this alone,” added Mosier. “I could not do it without my husband’s help and support.” And that of their pup, Ellie Mae. 

“Won’t you come into my garden? I would like my roses to see you.” – Richard Brinsley Sheridan

The Secret Garden Party and Tour was one of several fundraisers the Discovery Center, then Discovery House, tried as a fundraiser to aid in their expansion. While other fundraising events they experimented with disappeared, this one has withstood the passage of time. 

“Volunteers Debbye Daniels and Nila Gail Hunton were instrumental in bringing the concept of a garden tour to fruition,” said Lindsay Jennings, Vice President of Philanthropy, Discovery Center at Murfree Spring. “As one of the fastest growing hobbies around, the popularity of the Secret Garden Tour has grown leaps and bounds over the past 32 years. It is one of the longest running events in Rutherford County.”

Over the years, there have been around 130 gardens of every size and style that have been featured on the tour. 

“The gardens featured on the tour have changed,” said Jennings. “For many years, the gardens were designed by professional landscapers and were stunning, but feedback from our guests nowadays is that they prefer the gardens of home gardeners. Guests love to take home advice and ideas that they can incorporate into their own gardens. Many of our featured gardeners, and all of our Secret Garden Tour volunteers are members of the Rutherford County Master Gardeners, so they are passionate about sharing their knowledge and helping others in their gardening endeavors.”

As the biggest fundraiser of the year for Discovery Center, all proceeds from the Secret Garden Party and Secret Garden Tour allow the children's museum to continue to improve and expand its exhibits, programs and outreach. 

“Our attendees are supporting essential adventures for every child's journey,” said Tara MacDougall, President and CEO, Discovery Center at Murfree Spring. “As Rutherford County and its surrounding areas grow, so is attendance at our regional children's museum. In 2023, we had over 130,00 guests visit Discovery Center!”

Kicking off the tour is the Secret Garden Party. This year the party will take place on Friday, June 7 at the Bear Branch Cove home of Kathy and Bud Horsely. 

“Guests will be greeted with an Aperol spritz or glass of prosecco as they're transported to an evening of Italian coastal cuisine from Five Senses Catering and a live auction featuring luxury items and travel,” explained Jennings.

To buy tickets to the Secret Garden Tour on June 8th and June 9th, please visit There are also addresses and descriptions of each garden on the website. 

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