By Sarah Colson
Just off Cherokee Road in Johnson City sits a quiet, shady home with a large yard. Dan and Karol Lyn Johnson have lived there for 40 of their 49 years of marriage. While their lawn is large, Dan says he gave away his lawn mower 20 years ago when he no longer needed it. Now, instead of grass, it’s flowers that cover the ground—Phlox, Trillium, Shooting Stars and more—and they all grow happily almost completely in the shade.
“For about 30 years, Karol Lyn has been putting mulch on our yard,” Dan says, “and letting the grass disappear. So now it’s whatever will grow in the shade that the deer don’t eat.”
The Johnsons’ blooming yard is a product of hard work, retirement and long-cultivated friendships.
“In 1978 John Warden, who was a botanist at East Tennessee State University, took us out on a hike,” Dan says, “and he dug up a little clump of Phlox and said, ‘I think these will like your yard.’ We planted the little clump by the mailbox and over the last 35 years, they’ve just taken over the yard. This is the perfect time in the spring to see them blooming.”
The Mountain View Garden Club of Johnson City met at the Johnsons house recently to admire the couple’s handiwork and learn from the best.
Betsy Browder’s been in the club for two years and is locally famous for her tulips, which she says will have to stay strong to make it through the recent April heat wave. She stayed close by Karol Lyn’s side as she walked the ladies through her intricately-carved mulch paths weaving their way throughout the yard-turned-garden. “I’m here to see what she does for the shade,” Browder says, “I have so much of it so it’s interesting to see what other people do.”
Dan says that Karol Lyn, also a talented quilter, is the mastermind behind it all. Throughout the Johnsons’ property lie piles of carefully-arranged rocks to create a sturdy foundation for some of the soil.
“These rocks and bricks were a lot easier to carry when I was 30 instead of now,” Karol Lyn says with a twinkle in her eye.
Dan says while the gardening is not his doing, he gets all of his exercise from being outside. Head of biology department at ETSU for 9.5 of his 30-year teaching career there, Dan says that he has fond memories of peaceful walks from his home, up the ridge to work. Nowadays, to keep up his health, Dan works alongside his wife in the yard and has also developed quite the reputation for producing his own works of art. Dan creates not with a canvas and paint, but with something much more natural.
“This is the one physical activity that I do,” says Dan, who struggles with knee problems. “I’ve got to have some activity, I’m told by my wife who spends all her time out here in the yard. So I started building things out of sticks.”
Dan started his artwork after visiting some family members and seeing them clear their yard of sticks. It occurred to him that these piles of sticks could be turned into something enjoyable.
“I started with two trees halfway up the hill and I made something that I call ‘Big Face,’” Dan says. “He was quite handsome. He had Sumac branches with berries on them for a tongue. He had eyes that had room for white pumpkins…and little lights. I even had an art opening. I invited a bunch of people over just to enjoy the afternoon and see what I had done.”
Dan had his friends vote on whether or not the pile of sticks called “Big Face” was art. They voted 23 to 4 in favor of art.
One of his most adored creations is entitled “Big Foot.” The nearly-8-feet-tall figure has a round mouth, to match the myth of Big Foot from the Pacific Northwest and Native American cultures, Dan says. Dan says that because he is a Ph.D. zoologist, of course Big Foot’s feet are “anatomically correct.”
“He’s got all his carpals and metacarpals,” says Dan.
Another one of his pieces is called “Election” and won’t be finished until late November. Ropes strung up between trees represent the 50/50 line of the popular vote divided between the left and the right. After the presidential election is over in November, Dan will divide his sticks to represent the difference.
“The most extreme difference there has ever been was 60/40 when Linden Johnson beat Goldwater in ’64,” he says with a smile, “and I’m prepared to handle as much as 70/30 when Hillary wipes out Donald Trump.”
Along with creating artwork to go along with Karol Lyn’s impressive green thumb, Dan says he has one job that’s extremely important…and extremely odd.
“There’s a white Shooting Star over here,” Dan says, walking towards a small group of white flowers standing strong amongst the purple Phlox. “There’s a secret about those. Deer love them. But the way to discourage deer from eating them is for a carnivore to pee on them. And that’s my job.”
Despite the oddities that come with ensuring such a paradise in the middle of a shady, quiet neighborhood, the Johnsons find great joy in cultivating such a space for their friends and neighbors. They say they choose not to fret over the small things that go wrong and instead see it all as an ever-changing canvas where much hard work and dedication pay off every season.
“If the flowers survive, great,” Dan says. “If they spread, even better; and if the deer eat them then we don’t bother. It’s just been a real quiet place to live. ”