By Lynn J. Richardson
Sue Henley’s garden at her home in downtown Jonesborough is more than just a place where plants and flowers bloom and flourish; it is a place where people come together.
Underneath a towering cluster of 125-year-old crepe myrtles and a huge mock orange, friends, old and new, have been gathering since Sue and her late husband, Gerald, bought their home 26 years ago.
This year Sue continued the Henley tradition, hosting visitors during the annual Storytelling Festival. As guests gathered for a party on Friday night during the event, they told their own stories and enjoyed one another’s company around a fire pit built in Gerald’s memory.
The Henley home, built in 1835, is unique. It is the last private residence in the business district of Jonesborough. The Henleys are only the fifth owners of the house. “Miss Martha had lived in the house since she was two,” Sue said. “She spent her whole life here, and she didn’t leave until she was 90.”
“I had always loved this house,” Sue added. “Every time I walked by it, I put my hand on the bannister of the front porch, and mentally claimed it for my own.”
When Sue heard that Miss Martha was thinking of selling the house, she went to the woman and told her of their interest. But it was difficult for Martha to leave, Sue said. “Even after she made the decision and rented an apartment across the street, it was a whole year before she could actually decide to move.”
The home was everything they had hoped it would be — and more. When the home actually became theirs, the Henleys realized not only had they gained a house; they had also become the owners of a yard filled with heirloom flowers, trees and shrubs, plants which became the foundation for their garden.
The centerpiece for the garden is a huge mock orange, surrounded by beds containing old-fashioned perennial begonias with pink blooms and heart shaped leaves. Alongside are other heirloom plants including Goat’s Beard, with little purple and pink blooms; Frogwart, with tiny flowers resembling orchids; and a cluster of Trillium, a wildflower. Three of Miss Martha’s rose bushes also remain and bloom each year.
Additionally, a sample of the Henleys’ antique white anemones was collected by University of Tennessee gardeners for the school’s botanical garden.
The garden is ever changing. As the bright flowers of summer begin to fade, Sue is busy giving her garden a new look for fall. She cuts back many of the summer plants, mulching them heavily. Then she brings in an abundance of pumpkins and mums. Even the begonias, though not blooming, take on a new look, with attractive seed pods.
A collection of decorative plates adorn the inside of the fence, and become new colorful “flowers,” keeping the garden from being drab in the winter.
The outside of the rustic wooden fence also becomes the backdrop for Sue’s “alley garden.” Filled with unique items for each season, it is constantly a work in progress, as Sue changes it up with finds from church rummage sales, garage sales and even the dollar store. Some antiques are mixed in, turning an ordinary privacy fence into a head-turning must-see on Main Street.
“It is amazing, the people who say the first thing they do when they come into town is go up through the alley to see what I’ve added or changed,” Sue said. “Once when I was sitting on my back porch, I heard somebody yell, ‘Hello! We don’t know who lives here but we sure do love your fence!”
Sue’s garden has been called a “healing garden,” a “friendship garden” and even a “secret garden.” It has been a highlight of many annual Jonesborough Garden Gala tours over the years.
But most of all, Sue says it is a place where “you can just bring some of the nicest, warmest people together.”
“Sometimes people wander by when we’re having our Storytelling party and ask, ‘what the heck is this?’ I tell them ‘It’s a private party, but why don’t ya’ll come?’ And they do.”
The Henley backyard extends all the way back from Main Street to the next street behind. But the yard and her garden seem to reach far beyond its physical boundaries – especially in the fall when Storytelling rolls around.
“Storytelling weekend is the way the world should be,” Sue said. “It doesn’t matter what religion or political party you are, or where you’re from. It’s just people sitting around here in the garden, talking to each other and loving each other. That’s the way the world ought to be.”