This property was once recognized as one of the most outstanding nurseries in the Southeast. Started in 1786, the family-owned Howell Nurseries holds the record as the longest continually-operated business in Tennessee. In 2001, the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum (KBGA) was founded in order to preserve and protect this historic and overgrown property. During the past 14 years, we have cleared all 47 acres, maintained the beautiful stone walls and structures, converted the Joe Howell family home into offices, installed eight display gardens, established the Center for Urban Agriculture and opened a state-of-the-art Welcome Center. The Garden is a magical place featuring walking tails, display gardens, unique and historic horticulture and over two miles of distinctive stone walls and timeless buildings, all located just five minutes from downtown Knoxville. KBGA is a nonprofit organization supported by donations, memberships and grants. Thanks to our supporters, we are able to offer this beautiful space to the public for free.
The Joe Howell house began in 1929 when Joe Howell purchased the land across the street from his family’s nursery and built the original four-room house for the princely sum of $3000. Along with the gardens around it, the house grew from four rooms to 26 by the time it was finished in the mid-1950’s. The gardens around the house were reclaimed in 2008 when the KBGA staff found and reset the original brick borders defining the planting beds. You can still see many of Joe’s signature design elements in the double brick edging, traditional use of evergreen shrubs and the permanence of the stonework.
Joe Howell studied landscape design and fell in love with stonework. After establishing the Joe N. Howell Landscape Nurseries in 1942, he constructed stone walls and small, round gatehouses that showcased his design capabilities and accentuated the natural landscape. The Stone Terraces were designed as a terraced English Garden in the mid 1950’s. Currently, only the top bed is landscaped, with the other terraces reserved for event space. A large southern magnolia, tulip poplar and Kentucky coffeetree provide shade to the terraces. When visitors pay a call to the Garden today, Joe’s playful stone architecture is among the first things they notice – it welcomes them and invites them to wander inside a world of enchantment and whimsical wonder.
These beds were designed and planted by Knox County Master Gardeners in 2011 and are still maintained by them. This space is unique for containing numerous unusual plant specimens. These beds are also used as a teaching garden space for both master gardeners and garden clubs.
The Row Garden was originally used as Joe Howell’s vegetable garden. The concrete plates defining each were salvaged from another building somewhere near the Tennessee River. The stone walls around the Row Garden, built around 1938, are the oldest from what was the Joe N. Howell Landscape Nursery.
When the Martha H. Ashe Garden was dedicated in the summer of 2010, it had already had nearly sixty years of history to look back on. Originally designed by the Joe N. Howell Landscape Nursery as a garden showcase highlighting the many plants found in the 16-acre nursery, the Martha H. Ashe Garden was revived in the summer of 2007 with a redesign by KBGA staff. The project tread lightly on the existing plant material and bed design, mostly removing subpar or overgrown plant material and filling empty spaces with appropriate plants. This rebirth of the garden was made possible by a generous gift from the Ashe family in memory of Victor Ashe’s mother Martha who was a long-time member of the Knoxville Garden Club and a lover of plants.
The Welcome Center officially opened on August 14, 2015 at a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by over 300 guests and political officials. This 5,000 square-foot structure was renovated from the former Howell Nursery’s cinder block Plot Barn. The building serves as an indoor event space for weddings and special events, complete with an attached patio, landscaped garden space and adjacent parking. For information about renting this facility, please visit our Weddings and Special Events pages.
The story goes that the Greek princess Danae was the mother of the demigod Perseu, who was most famous for slaying the Gorgon Medusa. The plant named for this mythological princess, Danae racemosa, also has a storied past. Known as Poet’s Laurel, the branches of this plant were used during Greek and Roman times to make the wreaths that were placed on the heads of exemplary orators, athletes and poets. Our garden named after this versatile plant contains dozens of mature specimens that have been growing on the site for at least fifty years. The garden was designed by Hedstrom Design of Knoxville and installed in 2011. Within this garden is the Mary Nell Johnson Perennial Border, which was originally designed and installed in 2007 and received an overhaul in 2014.
With the extensive history of the Howell Nursery to guide us, we began our collection of our native dogwoods and their many varieties. Several acres of the former Howell Nursery were designated as the site for our dogwood collections, and with both financial and physical help from the Wolf Tree family, work began in 2011 with irrigation lines and the building of the primary trail. Our collection quickly grew to contain over 20 cultivars of our native Cornus florida, 16 distinct species and dozens of varieties of other Cornus family members.
The Butterfly Meadow was a major first step for KBGA toward a true children’s education and habitat conservation project. It was designed to allow visitors and students to view all of the beds from both sides, and it contains only plants that are native to East Tennessee and some cultivars of native plants. The plants were chosen specifically to provide larval food for native butterflies but also to have something in bloom for nine months of the year which not only provides nectar but also shelter. There are over 50 native species in this garden space. The Meadow and adjacent outdoor classroom provide an opportunity for children to connect with, and a reason to care for, their natural surroundings.
KBGA’s Center for Urban Agriculture is a 10-acre facility that enables gardeners of all experience levels to grow food for themselves and others. The CUA consists of five garden areas: Family Garden, Amphitheater Garden, “Every Child Outdoors” Youth Vegetable Garden, Market Garden and Terrace Garden. These gardens provide the residents of Knoxville with fresh fruits and vegetables, value-added products, agricultural training, nutrition education and entrepreneurial opportunities.