Lisa Manning’s love of gardening began as a seed planted by her grandfather, when she was a young child. “My grandfather had a huge working garden,” she says, wistfully. “I remember sitting under a tree with him and eating pomegranate fresh and getting red all over my clothes, and it didn't matter. And I just thought, 'I love this.' ”
That love blossomed into a full-blown passion that has preoccupied Lisa for her adult life. The lush garden at Meldhaven Home and Gardens, the 2.5-acre residence in West Nashville that she shares with her husband of 36 years, David, is not only a personal refuge, it’s also a nationally recognized treasure. The garden was recently chosen by the Smithsonian Institution to be included in the Archives of American Gardens because of its diversity of plant material, plant collections and aesthetic beauty. The always-changing garden is currently home to 900 species of plants; roughly 1,100 have resided on the property at one point or another. Lisa is an organic gardener — meaning no chemicals of any kind are used — and she looks for foliage, color and texture when choosing what to plant next. Both beautiful and practical, the property includes a wide variety of unique plants, many of which Lisa has manipulated herself, and a mix of fruits, vegetables and herbs.
And while a garden of this magnitude seems like it must have been masterminded by a brilliant landscape architect, in reality, it’s been a trial-and-error labor of love by Lisa and David. “I know it can be a big, planned, organized garden designed by some famous [landscape architect], but it's not,” she says. “You can tell. But it just brings us joy, and if something doesn't work, we rip it out and do something else. It's just all about the fun.”
Lisa’s only formal training is a Master Gardener program that she completed in the 1980s. “It's an intensive course to teach you everything,” she says. “You learn about soil. You learn about plant material. You learn about growing habits. You learn about propagation. You learn about chemicals, good and bad of all of that. It's your basic but intensive 101 with tests and everything, and it's wonderful.”
Although Lisa doesn’t still practice within the program, she’s active in The Garden Club of America, teaches gardening classes and volunteers to build community gardens in low-income areas and for survivors of domestic abuse. She also works to protect and preserve the 400 endangered plant species in the state of Tennessee. It’s a way for her to share her love of nature and help pass on the beauty of it to others.
“Nature speaks to me,” says Lisa. “I just love it. This can make me have tears in my eyes, but it's been so lovely.”
Master of Manipulation
One thing that Lisa is known for is her manipulation and experimentation with plants. “It's so much fun to grow plants, but why not grow them and try to do different things with them,” she says. Case in point: the weeping bald cypress that Lisa added a trunk to. The plant, a Taxodium distichum, is only supposed to stand 3 to 4 feet tall and roam across the ground, but Lisa had the idea to create a trunk to help support it. “She's 20 years old, but we made this beautiful trunk,” she says. “And we made this beautiful drape, and we made it have an umbrella look.”
A stumpery is an artistic, atmospheric and structural garden feature where upturned stumps and logs mingle with plants, popularized in Victorian England. After seeing the stumpery at Highgrove Royal Gardens, the private gardens of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, Lisa was inspired to create one of her own. She lost a 100-foot Japanese maple and decided to build the stumpery in its place. “Most of these stumps came from Amy Grant's farm,” she says. “She was very generous, letting us take away things that were up in her woods.”
A Long Journey
Many of the plants in Lisa’s garden are growing a long way from home, like this unusual African agave that was a gift on one of Lisa’s vacations. The plant takes 10 to 15 years to grow, blooms once and then dies. Lisa’s specimen grew to be 17 feet tall with a massive purple bloom and smaller yellow blooms on every edge. She was so amazed by it that she invited friends over to view it while it was in bloom. When it died, she collected seeds and planted them. “So I'll get to have it happen again,” she says. “Isn't that fun? Why grow something ordinary when you can do something fun like that?”
Hard at Work
An entire section of the property is dedicated to Lisa’s working and cutting gardens, where she grows organic produce and flowers for arranging. A raised bed houses lettuce, green leafy vegetables and herbs. And because of the glass doors, she can use it year-round. “In the summer, I leave it open, but in the winter, I close this totally. And it's like a little greenhouse in here,” she says. She also grows strawberries, blueberries, asparagus, figs, artichokes, garlic and onions. She has a gorgeous lemon tree that she brought back from the Amalfi Coast and three beehives that produce between five and 15 gallons of honey per year.
Fans of the Antiques & Garden Show may recognize the woven willow that is used throughout the garden as a decorative accent. It came from iconic garden designer Ryan Gainey’s entry garden at the 20th anniversary show in 2010. Lisa repurposed the panels of woven willow to make an archway, trellises and flower boxes.