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Gardens at Carnton and Carter House combine history and horticulture

Carnton Garden

There are two main factors to explain why some members of the Williamson County Master Gardeners Association choose to do most of their volunteering in the gardens at Carnton and the Carter House.

“I enjoy history and I enjoy horticulture,” says Ron Novak, who has been the association’s project leader at the Carter House for the past decade. “You can combine those two, and Carter House is a natural.

“I enjoy just getting out and getting my hands dirty, and I enjoy the camaraderie with the master gardeners who are out there with me. It’s the great outdoors.”

In addition to the beauty and the fresh air that emanate from the gardens, they are a key part of the history of both Carnton and the Carter House. The grounds at Carnton include a 1-acre kitchen and ornamental garden as well as a garden produced by the enslaved, and the Carter House is where a vegetable garden shares space with an orchard of pear and apple trees.

Visitors to both locations are invited to stroll through the gardens and orchard as part of the tour of the homes.

“Guests can walk through the gardens on their own, and most choose to do so,” says Eric Jacobson, CEO for the Battle of Franklin Trust, which oversees Carnton and the Carter House. “This is especially true in the spring, when the gardens are really beautiful.”

The design and layout of the gardens and orchard, plus the types of plants, vegetables and fruits grown, have been meticulously considered based on journals, photographs and other documents. At Carnton, 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.

“This garden was recreated [around the mid-1990s] based on the evidence found in archeological research, photographs and letters,” says Justin Stelter, who owns JS Gardening and has managed both garden sites since 2003. “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 Battle of Franklin Trust decided to add in 2014 what is called the Period Slave Garden. It has been recreated in the same manner that the slaves worked in a small plot next to their living quarters to honor their service and the struggles they encountered.

Across town at the Carter House, where Fountain Branch Carter and his family were caught in the middle of the raging skirmish of the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, a vegetable garden and an orchard of 69 apple and pear trees were added beginning in 2012. Moscow Carter, oldest son of Fountain Branch, inherited the property following his father’s death a few years after the Civil War had ended.

“We used the same documentation from Moscow Carter’s journals,” Novak says of the design and selection of vegetables and fruits for the garden and orchard. “He kept records of everything he planted, so that helped us out a lot.”

Mary Loftus, who has been the Master Gardener Association’s project leader for the main garden at Carnton since 2018, appreciates the opportunity to do her part in making sure the garden stays healthy. In addition to digging in the dirt, she is responsible for coordinating volunteers and keeping up with the number of hours spent in the garden.

“I consider it an honor and a privilege being able to work there,” she says. “An historic garden has its own kind of personality. I love the idea that I can be in a place [with that kind of history]. I feel like I’m on very special ground.

“I know people come from very far to see it and so it’s an honor to make it look nice.”