Church Garden


This area is currently closed to visitors due to boxwood blight. For more information on boxwood blight, please see our Portico articles, “Threatening Clouds on the Horizon” and “The Storm is Here.” 

Alice always explained that the Church Garden, also called the Sanctuary in the past, is where Sarah Coleman Ferrell began developing her garden in 1841, when she enlarged the gardens begun by her mother, Nancy Ferrell, in 1832; however, evidence suggests this garden was added later and the oldest portions are closer to the home. Quite a few old trees from Sarah’s era survive, including the China fir, which was planted in the 1850s. Sarah planted the four Eastern red cedars, the trunks of which can be seen around the wellhead. The well was then covered with a wooden summerhouse. These trees were still alive when Alice came to live at Hills and Dales in 1936. At some point, she had the trees topped, leaving the trunks for structure, and erected the heavy iron chain to support the white wisteria planted at each base.

Ida Callaway wrote that she carried on Sarah’s “church” theme with some of her annual and perennial plantings in these beds, using zinnia (commonly called “old maids) and Sweet William to represent the women and men in the congregation and jack-in-the-pulpit for the minister. She went on to say that the birds singing in the garden represented the songs from the choir. While both Sarah and Ida planted colorful flowers and shrubs there, Alice decided that the Church Garden would be more sacred and restful in white, so she changed it over time into a predominantly white garden, which it still is today. Listen to Alice discuss the Church Garden in the video below, which was taken from her 1994 recorded interview.

In a 2023 interview with former Hills & Dales Horticulture Manager, Jo Phillips, who was hired by Alice Callaway in 1994 and retired in 2022, Jo goes into great detail about the iconography and plantings in the Church Garden over time. She said:

“As we exit the south end of the Greenhouse, we’ll enter one of the oldest parts of the garden and walk through the area that is actually the estate’s reason to be. This formal boxwood garden that Sarah Ferrell planted over the 62 years that she gardened here was well known by Fuller Callaway Sr. He grew up in this county and knew Mrs. Ferrell. He particularly enjoyed walking through her garden and talking with her about it. Callaway family history says that Mrs. Ferrell encouraged Fuller Sr. to purchase this property after her death. As she began getting older, I think she was concerned about what the fate of it would be. It was very well-known regionally and was somewhat known across the whole country, and it had been her life’s work. We see it as a masterpiece. She did have children that might possibly have inherited, but of her three children, she lost her daughter in childbirth and her youngest son died during the Civil War. Their other son, Clarence, lived on part of the Ferrell estate kind of adjacent to this part of the garden. By the time his parents died, he was not a young man, either, and so, after the Ferrell’s passed away (Mrs. Ferrell passed away first in 1903 and then Judge Ferrell died in 1908), it eventually did come up for sale and Fuller Sr was able to purchase the property. All that to say that he purchased the property because of the garden that was here. He knew about this garden, he loved it, and he wanted to see it cared for and preserved. So, Hills & Dales as we know it would not exist if it were not for Mrs. Ferrell’s garden. I know that Ida treasured it as well and she impressed upon her daughter-in-law, Alice, to always give credit to Mrs. Ferrell for her work here. The garden design has been preserved remarkably as far as the layout of the beds. Gardens change over time, you can’t keep them static, so the plants on the interiors of the beds have changed over many times probably, but the bones of the garden, the evergreen bones of boxwood and magnolia and we even have some other trees that Sarah planted, are still here. So, it still tells a lot of the story that Sarah was trying to communicate, we think.

This first garden room that we’re going to walk through is on the west end of the garden. It’s kind of totally set apart from the other sections, although adjacent, because you step down into it. Sarah called it the Church or sometimes the West Garden. Alice referred to it as the Church Garden. Ida also referred to it as the Church and also called it a sanctuary. In this essentially square garden room, there are elements of a church, so we feel like Sarah planted it so that she could come out into the garden and worship. She was a very devout woman, and she was a member of the First Baptist Church on the Square (it was First Baptist Church of LaGrange at that time), but we’re a mile from the square and if you think about the mid-1800s, it would’ve been either ride a horse, hitch a buggy up to a horse, or walk back into town. It was a little more than a few minutes away. The estate was actually out of the city limits proper, so we think that Sarah wanted a place that she could come outside and worship her Creator any time that she wanted to.

She fancifully planted, in boxwood, an espalier garden out here that created a church. In this corner is a tall rectangular tree boxwood that’s pruned into a rectangle and it represented a pipe organ in the church. You’ll see boxwood to the right of this narrow path that undulates in and out in a double-serpentine fashion, and we believe that it was a water feature. There’s some evidence that it either represented maybe the River Jordan or a fountain and it kind of emulates a water feature that’s seen in an Italian garden. Then we have a lyre-shaped harp planted in boxwood. It represented another one of the musical instruments, along with the pipe organ. Other church features are a little hard to see or realize what they are unless someone points them out to you. On the back wall behind the Cunninghamia tree, are two sections of boxwood on either side pruned like a rectangle but they have a ledge, or seat, cut in them. These represented high-backed pews, and we’ve also seen them written from Ida’s time as being mourners benches. In front of one of the benches or pews is a perfectly round bed, and it represented the collection plate or the offering plate. In earlier years, before these trees were so large and the Church Garden had more sun, and we’re told that Ida would plant yellow marigolds in here to represent gold coins. Ida also carried on the Church Garden theme with some of the other plantings in here. She planted Sweet William out here to represent the men of the congregation and Zinnias, which one of the common names for Zinnias is Old Maids, to represent the women of the church. Then, in the shady areas, she planted Jack-in-the-Pulpit to represent the minister. She said the birds singing provided the choir music.

Mrs. Ferrell planted the Cunninghamia tree, or China fir, and it would’ve been a rare tree whenever she planted it. As you can see it has a beautiful trunk that is very much admired by our guests whenever they come through the garden. It is generally not recommended for small landscapes, as you can see, it’s quite large. So it needs a garden of this size, or a property of this size, to be in keeping with its proportions. The complaint that some gardeners have about it is that it’s a messy tree, but I don’t actually know of a tree that’s not messy. That’s just part of being a tree. Whenever it sheds, it will shed little branchlets in the fall along the same timeline that pine trees are shedding their needles.

The ornament that’s installed near the harp has an armillary sphere on the top of it now, which was put in by Alice, but the stone and the little concrete part that it’s mounted on was put in by Fuller Sr. and Ida. Ida had a gazing globe on it. Gazing globes are kind of popular again, and we might think that they’re a modern ornament, but they’ve been popular for quite a while. Alice told me she wasn’t crazy about it. She didn’t remove it, but at some point it broke, and she replaced it with the armillary sphere. That represents the heavens and has an arrow going through it that points due north.

You may also notice there are a lot of white blooming plants out here. That was a decision made by Alice. She thought that this was the prefect spot in the garden to have a white garden, being that is was the Church Garden and white is kind of a color that symbolizes purity, innocence, or sacredness. So, over time, she converted this into a white garden with white blooming annuals, perennials, trees, and shrubs.

As we walk towards the area where the well is, you’ll notice that there are four columns that are made from the trunks of four eastern red cedars that Sarah had growing here. Alice told me they were still living whenever she and Fuller Jr. moved on to the estate in 1936. At some point, Alice decided that the old cedars that are flanking this well became, as she called them, ‘straggly and unweildy.’ So her decision was to cut the tops out, which killed the cedars; but since the trunks are rot resistant, she left those trunks standing as kind of an architectural structure. The vine that is growing around those trunks and between them is white Chinese wisteria. It’s hard to see right now because the vine is covering it up, but in between those cedars is heavy iron chain supporting the vine, so you kind of get almost a little arbor effect. The well that is enclosed here is one of two stone wells that are the remnants of those that were used during the Ferrell’s time. The wells provided water for any use that it was needed for, gardening or household. One of the architects that designed the house, Neil Reed, actually designed the iron well-head that’s now attached to the top of the well. Alice told me that whenever she and Fuller Jr. moved here they were still live wells, though they were covered, and they began to worry about the danger of a child possibly falling in these wells. Since they didn’t need them for water any longer, they had them filled in. We usually will keep a large container in them and have a potted plant growing in this well and in the one that’s located deeper in the garden, which is something that Alice did as well. She would either have a hanging fern out here or she would have a potted plant that was set down in the center. We do have a letter from Mrs. Ferrell to her husband that was written right before the Civil War, and she was talking to him about how dry it was here. First, she chided him for not having written to her as faithfully as he should have, and then she was telling him about how dry it was and how she was going out every evening and ‘watering the little boxwood’ trying to keep some of the young things alive. You can imagine having to water then to keep all of this stuff alive. It’s hard enough now when we have irrigation, but it’s hard to imagine having to do it all by hand.

One story that Alice told me was about the cryptomeria that’s in the Church Garden. Alice said that she had decided to remove one of Mrs. Ferrell’s cryptomeria that was elsewhere in the garden not long after the garden had come under her care. The tree had gotten too big and was blocking a path. Alice’s older sister Virginia, who was married to Cason Callaway (making her both Alice’s sister and her sister-in-law), was approximately 10 years older than Alice and a very avid gardener and a self-taught horticulturist. Alice, by her own confession, was a novice gardener whenever she and Fuller Jr. moved in and, though the thought of being the caretaker of this garden had really unnerved her, she did take to it. Alice told me that one day she was out in the garden working and Virginia came to visit her. Alice said the first thing out of Virginia’s mouth wasn’t “How are you?”, “How are the children?”, “How’s Fuller?”, it was “What have you done to Mrs. Ferrell’s cryptomeria?” Alice said she looked up at Virginia and said “I had it removed.” She said that Virginia just threw up her hands and marched off saying “You’re just going to ruin the garden!” I’m sure that Virginia, being the older sister, was watching what little sister was doing and let her know when she didn’t approve. Alice’s expression to me was “that just set me on fire,” and she said “I was determined that I would get another cryptomeria for the garden, and I did, but I put it where I wanted it.” That is the cryptomeria that is currently in the Church Garden. While it is quite large, it is something that Alice did add in the 20th century. “

Horticultural Specimens

  • Common Boxwood [sometimes called American boxwood]  (Buxus sempervirens) is often shaped in large balls or rounds at the ends of certain paths throughout the garden. Planted first by Sarah, but cultivated by all three ladies as they cared for the garden. It is worth noting this boxwood is native to Europe, not America.
  • English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’) is the shrub that is kept sheared to comprise the body of most of the parterre bed outlines in the garden. Again, planted first by Sarah, but cultivated by all three ladies as they cared for the garden.
  • China fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata), giant tree near the harp. Planted in mid-1800s by Sarah Ferrell.
  • Cryptomeria (Cryptomeria japonica) by boxwood “pipe organ.” Planted by Alice Callaway in 1965. [The garden had Cryptomeria prior to that date that was planted by Mrs. Ferrell, but Alice had it removed at some point.]
  • Yulan magnolia (Magnolia denudata) beside white border. Blooms white in mid-February to early March. Planted by Alice in 1968.
  • White wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) suspended on chains around well. Blooms in late March or early April. Planted by Alice.
  • Snowball viburnum (Viburnum macrocephalum) under Cryptomeria tree. Blooms in May and sometimes again in late fall. Planted by Alice.
  • White weeping cherry (Prunus subhirtella ‘Pendula’ [top grafted, dwarf form]) near steps to 5th terrace. Blooms in late March or early April. Planted by Alice.
  • White redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Alba’) at top of wall by steps to 5th terrace. Blooms in April. Planted by Alice.

Portico articles about the Church Garden include “Church Garden Sentinel,” “Steel Defense,” and “The White Album.”

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