The Garden Path
The Iris Garden at Ellington (and how it came to be)

by Catherine Averitt, Nashville, Tennessee

The iris garden at Ellington Agriculture Center was the answer to a dream. Although, an occasional nightmare may have crept in during the five years a-building.

There are the pressures: of time to get the garden cleaned and ready for “Show Time;” of money, to do the things we wanted; of help, physical help to maintain the garden area. And after all this, when do you find the time to grow a few irises at home?

In 1984 after an almost two year search, what seemed to be an ideal garden spot was found at the agriculture center for the State of Tennessee. On what was once a private estate, the area offered to us was spread out over two acres of level ground surrounded by beautiful hills. The center is a protected sanctuary for birds and small animals.

The area is fairly centrally located in Nashville and easily accessible from two interstate highways.

Permission was needed from the Commissioner of Agriculture who at that time was William W. Walker. Both Mr. Walker and his assistant, Mr. Ed McGee were of invaluable help. Permission was granted and the idea was taken to the October 1984 meeting of the Middle Tennessee Iris Society.

When this information was presented to the members of the Society, the vote was unanimously in favor of the project. The public display Iris Garden was on its way.

First we needed a garden committee to plan what to do, when and how. Then we needed irises, lots of irises and we didn’t have any money. So – go begging! In the Spring of 1985 we sent out letters – about sixty – to those people we had been buying irises from for our own gardens over many years. We asked for help of whatever kind they could give.

The response was quick and overwhelming. Boxes of rhizomes started to come in almost every day for awhile. Even the UPS driver was getting excited about the new garden that was to hold all those “bulbs”.

To all those people who gave so generously we will always be grateful.

We needed to get beds ready quickly and the people at Ellington Center came through again. A landscape architect with the grounds division, Bill Tolbert, answered our call for guidance on the layout for the garden.

The plan decided upon includes ten beds in each of two sections. Another bed has since been added to give the Dykes Medalists more identity.

Initially, grasscutting was done by the maintenance crew at the center. Later on we were able to purchase our own mower and our members have done the cutting of the grass on a volunteer basis since then.

We also wanted a display garden which would be easily accessible to those people who might wish to come in wheelchairs or on walkers, etc. This has been rewarded in several instances by some who are regular, or repeat, visitors to the garden during bloom season.

Concrete garden benches have been placed at intervals around the perimeter.

One of the recurring nightmares has been trying to get publicity about the garden in local newspapers. We never know if visitors will show up for special viewing times.

Since a gazebo was added in 1986, many requests have been made to hold weddings and/or receptions there. The garden has also been popular for tours by church groups, senior citizens groups, and garden clubs. There have also been ceremonies for both Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops.

Also, adding to the beauty of the garden are two large white urns marking the centers of the two sections.

In 1987 it was decided that a special section was needed for Japanese irises. The pond was dug and concrete poured to form a lovely pool to collect the waters from two naturally formed springs on the hillside above. These Japanese irises planted at the base of this setting were donated and delivered by our good neighbor in Kentucky, Rodger Donaldson.

Represented now are tall beardeds, medians and dwarfs. Also, Siberian, Japanese, Louisiana and Spuria. Yellow I. pseudacorous is planted at each end of the Japanese bridge.

All this has been long hours to hard work and thousands of dollars spent to make it happen. Money was contributed by members and friends and through the sale of hundreds of our, now famous, sweatshirts.

Hopefully, the “Iris Garden at Ellington” will live on long after those who’ve planned, planted and nurtured it have gone. And, hopefully, it will give much pleasure to those who come to visit and sit in the beautiful gazebo or on the surrounding benches or just walk through – enjoying the flowers that have been called “Goddesses of the Rainbow.” Then, it will be the answer to THAT DREAM!

To all collectors of Rainbows and other sun-dusted splendors: come across our Red Bridge and walk our paths…enjoy iris vistas from the Gazebo…or reflected treasures in the Mirror Pond…over 800 “sun jewels” shine in our Display Garden for the love of Irisarians! We at MTIS take great pride in continuing to bring all Tennesseans—those who live and those who visit – the beautiful winning ways of our state flower.


Notes on Use of the Garden
from the Middle Tennessee Iris Society

We rent the iris garden from the last weekend in April (not in 2018) thru the first weekend in October. All reservations are handled on a first-come first-serve basis once someone has sent in their donation for use of the garden. We do not rent out the garden for birthday parties or family reunions. For reservations, contact Ginny Russell, (615) 883-4338, on weekends or 6pm-9pm during the week.

There is no electricity in the garden, and so everything must be cleaned up and finished before dark. This is a hard and fast rule with Ellington Agricultural Center for the safety of the guests. They do not allow lights to be brought in, as there are private homes across the street.