Carnton garden revitalized, boasting true beauty

Photo by John McBryde

Photo by John McBryde


The Battle of Franklin began and ended on Nov. 30, 1864, but its aftermath could have extended into the 21stcentury due to a certain discovery in the garden that’s located on the grounds of Carnton Plantation.

As a young boy played in the garden while his parents were touring the Carnton home on a hot July day in 2003, he began digging in the mud of a hole where a pecan tree had been blown down by a windstorm. With muddy hands and arms, the youngster later found his father and showed him a metal object he had found in the hole.

“The object was taken to our interpreters, and it turned out it was artillery – an unexploded Hotchkiss shell,” said Justin Stelter, who happened to have been hired that same month as head gardener at Carnton.

“The kid could have been the last casualty of the Battle of Franklin.”

Not all the stories of Carnton’s one-acre kitchen/ornamental garden have quite the drama of “The Lively Little Boy and His Lively Little Cannonball,” but its place in the annals of the McGavock homestead is every bit as important as the mansion’s back porch or the grounds’ Confederate cemetery.

Visitors who tour Carnton are welcome to wander through the garden, but a guided tour of its flowers, vegetables and history costs extra and requires a reservation. It’s a story unto itself.

“This garden was re-created based on the evidence found in archeological research, photographs and letters,” Stelter said. “The mission of our garden is to educate, to interpret the period between 1847 and 1869.

“There’s not a plant in the garden that was introduced after 1869.”

The garden was created on the west side of the mansion in 1847 after John McGavock began running the plantation following the death of his father, Randal McGavock. John married Carrie Winder in 1848, and the couple continued to shape the garden with a variety of vegetables, herbs and ornamentals.

It had completely disappeared by 1978, the year several Franklin preservationists came together to bring life back to a dilapidating home and overgrown grounds that had belonged to the McGavocks and had become famous for having served as a hospital during the Battle of Franklin. It took another 20 years before focus could be placed on the garden, and through the guidance of a noted landscape architect, the design, layout and types of plants were determined well enough for a re-creation of the original garden.

Stelter was hired five years later as Carnton’s first head gardener, and he approached his job as both an experienced landscaper and someone vastly interested in historic gardens. Stelter was a student majoring in economics at Middle Tennessee State at the time, and he was discovering that his academic pursuit wasn’t meshing with his vocational desires.

“I thought I’d have to find a niche (in landscaping and lawn care) or I’m going to have to find an office job as an economic analyst,” said Stelter, who has help at Carnton from garden expert Anne Owen as well as several members from the Williamson County Master Gardeners Association. “The last thing I wanted to do was sit in an office from 9-5. I wanted to be outside with nature.”

More information can be found by visiting the Carnton Plantation garden’s webpage.