No southern home was complete without a vegetable garden, and the Ray Garden was the location of the Callaway vegetable garden from the early 1900s until Alice Callaway converted it into a rose garden in the 1950s. It’s said that Alice made the transition after Fuller Jr. presented her not with a dozen roses, but with hundreds of hybrid tea roses one Christmas.
Alice, who called the area the “Lower Garden,” converted the garden again in the 1950s to an annual and perennial garden. She wanted to accommodate guests who did not have the time to walk through all of Sarah Ferrell’s boxwood terraces with a chance to view a pretty garden. To avoid confusion with the “Sunken Garden,” the name “Ray Garden” was adopted for this location when the estate was opened to the public, so named for the manner in which the beds radiate out from the center.
Today, the rays are planted with daylilies and annuals for seasonal color as Alice would have done. Alice planted an assortment of conifers in the 1970s that still frame the view of the estate and horse pasture beyond. These include hemlocks, Japanese cedars, false cypress, and junipers. The classical statue on the far side of the Ray Garden was originally purchased by Fuller Sr. and Ida Callaway, but was later moved here by Alice.
The following is from a Portico article titled, “The More Things Change,” about the history of the Ray Garden.
“Another addition has been a garden below the entry drive, in full view of the courtyard and seen by everyone coming to the house. The beds are in a spoke design, with a lacy metal gazebo covered with clematis in the center. It is easily maintained, with grass paths between the beds filled with plants chosen for both flower and foliage…”
So wrote Alice Callaway in 1984 about a garden she had installed in 1950 to provide a lovely view for visitors to see and enjoy, especially those whose stay was too brief to stroll Mrs. Ferrell’s boxwood garden. Today the bed arrangement remains the same in this area named “The Ray Garden” for the way the beds radiate out from the center. The garden continues to provide a view that is a favorite with guests of the estate, with the hemlock hedge and pecan trees beyond still framing an idyllic pastoral scene.
However, historic garden research shows that the area was not always used as an ornamental garden. Evidently, before Alice created the Ray Garden this area had been used as a fruit and vegetable garden by Mr. and Mrs. Fuller Callaway Sr.—although the design was very different. An aerial photograph from 1923 shows rectangular beds and a tall sheared hedge on the north side, likely planted to block cold winds. Fast forward about 18 years and another aerial shot pictures a clipped shrub hedge with an arched entryway that surrounded the garden on all sides. Rectangular beds are visible, as is a very small building surrounded by a fence—all within the hedged interior—that appears to be a coop and small yard, presumably for chickens. A decade later all of that was removed as Alice, by her own account, acted upon her vision for something beautiful rather than utilitarian for this area with its proximity to the house. Today, visitors often inquire whether Alice continued to grow vegetables after she converted this area to an ornamental garden, and the answer is “Yes!” She also loved to grow things to eat; her vegetable garden was relocated to an area just west of the greenhouse. However, the fate of the chicken yard remains unknown.
The initial transformation in 1950 involved the sunny, flat plain being planted with large beds of roses that were a Christmas gift from her husband Fuller Jr. Garden notes indicate that the area was then logically dubbed “The Rose Garden” and early photos from those years reveal the spoke design but no gazebo. Also gone was most, if not all, of the clipped hedge. Her records reveal that the hemlocks were purchased in September 1964 and it is assumed that they were planted shortly thereafter. The hemlocks, now fully mature, provide a tall, soft green backdrop to the west side of the garden. The rose garden remained here for some time but Alice remarked in later years that, although beautiful, the roses required so much maintenance that she had few regrets when age decreased their vigor and she opted to install a totally different palette of plants. And install she did! From 1970-1973, noted in her records was the acquisition of several dozen conifers of differing species and cultivars that were sited in what she now referred to as “the garden below the pool.” All were artfully arranged in long, narrow beds that framed the area on two more sides and allowed to achieve their natural form. The many that remain are now mature specimens providing backdrops for the north and east boundaries, with the individuality of each yielding a striking counterpoint to the geometry of the design within.
Photographs and lists in notebooks document what she selected over the years to fill the interior beds. A photo from the late 1960s shows 16 of the 24 spoke beds, plus the four surrounding the new gazebo, ablaze with color from celosia and mums. Blocks of daylilies can be seen dividing each quadrant, completing the sum. A classical statue was front and center of the hemlocks as it is now, but the white benches that are in the picture are no longer present. Changing out that many annual beds seasonally was undoubtedly labor intensive, and was perhaps the reason more of the garden’s beds became planted with perennials as the years passed. She began referring to this area as “The Lower Garden,” also recording that most of the annuals gave way to the likes of iris, candytuft, and lamb’s ear with boxwood and liriope skirting the gazebo. By the 1990s, only two to four beds were specced for seasonal plantings.
As fate would have it, the contents of this lovely spot have come almost full circle, not with a return to vegetables, mind, but many more colorful annuals. As a public garden open year round, uninterrupted color in highly visible areas is always desirable. The location’s sunny exposure makes it a natural spot for the visual appeal of blooming plants, so we have returned 16 of the beds back to the cultivation of showy annuals. Once again, they comprise four corner quadrants that are divided by beds of the same daylilies that Alice used. Paying homage to what were once here, ‘President Herbert Hoover’ roses (a cultivar grown by both Ida Callaway and Alice) now circle the clematis-covered gazebo. And yet another name change has occurred as well. Because a section in the historic boxwood garden has long been called “The Sunken Garden,” the concern arose that, due to the similarity between the names, visitors would confuse the two. “The Ray Garden” was the easy winner of the suggestions presented, being an epithet suitable for such a dramatic design. We hope that Alice would approve!
- There are usually 8 beds of daylilies and 16 beds of annuals that get changed out seasonally so that there is as much color in this garden as possible year-round.
- Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora) covers the gazebo. Planted by Alice Callaway.
- Hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis) hedge behind statue bed—planted by Alice Callaway in 1964.
- Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) pair on each of north corners of garden—planted by Alice Callaway.
- A collection of other conifers also surrounds the Ray Garden on three sides. Includes species and cultivars of false cypress (Chamaecyparis), juniper (Juniperus), and arborvitae (Thuja). Planted by Alice Callaway in the early 1970s.
- Mimosa or silk tree (Albizia julibrissin) on lawn area with picnic table. Blooms pink in late spring-early summer. Planted by Alice Callaway in 1968 after she received it as a gift from an arboretum. This plant is native to Asia, but is seen as an invasive species in the United States. Once very trendy to collect, gardeners have moved away from planting these types of species.
Read about the types of conifers that surround the Ray Garden in our Portico article, “Conifer Connection.”