Wills Perennial Garden - Cheekwood
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Wills Perennial Garden

In celebration of Cheekwood’s 60th anniversary as a public institution, we’re highlighting one of our 12 distinct gardens each month to showcase our wide variety of garden offerings. With 55 acres of rolling hills and 12 intricate, unique gardens, there’s something for everyone to experience and love at Cheekwood.

In the summer of 1977, an iris collection was donated to Cheekwood by Mrs. Ellen Wills. She dedicated it to her late husband, Jesse Ely Wills, the famed iris hybridizer, former president of the American Iris Society and winner of the Dykes Medal Award. The donated iris collection planted the seed for something bigger, a memorial garden for the beloved Jesse E. Wills, philanthropist and pillar of the business community, iris breeder, poet, and wildlife lover.

The design for the memorial garden was a collaborative effort between Duncan Callicott, Cheekwood’s executive director of horticulture at the time, and a local landscape architecture firm, Kevin Turner & Associates. Together the team created a space that would capture Jesse Wills’ essence: a garden fit for the cultivation of irises, a home for pollinators and other wildlife, an auditory experience, and a spectacular open view of the sky. The Wills Perennial garden officially opened and dedicated in April of 1981.

©Caitlin Harris Photography

The perennial garden is set on a terrace, elevated above the three interconnected ponds of the Robinson Family Water Garden. To the southwest of this site, the protected hills of the Warner Parks provide the perfect scene for a setting sun. From out of the original rock wall of the circular drive grows creeping raspberry, candytuft, and a variety of sedum that give the perennial garden a reference to the historic estate and a connection to the Reflecting Pool and Swan Lawn on the opposite side. The Wills Perennial Garden offers an organic and loose arrangement, mirroring the way in which the Mansion’s stonework becomes less formed and compact the further it moves into the surrounding landscape.

Besides the exuberant color matched with a variety of texture and fragrance, another layer of the Wills Perennial Garden is an auditory one. An array of buzzing pollinators inhabits this garden like no other, creating the pitches of a vibrant symphony. With a diverse plant palette to ensure a long bloom period, shrubs for shelter, and full sun exposure, hospitality is offered for fiery skippers’ soft squeaks, duskywing hums, and the fluttering of eastern tiger swallowtail. Goldfinches swarm to the purple-top verbena and the hummingbirds incessantly seek out the red salvias and aromatic bee balm.

©Caitlin Harris Photography

June is Perennial Garden Month, and we encourage you to get out to the Wills Perennial Garden and experience the sights, sounds, and smells of this beloved, unique garden. With its many colors, textures, and layers, its sure to leave you feeling inspired to plant your own perennial garden a home.

Click here to read about our other distinct gardens. For a look at what’s currently blooming in the gardens, check out our Gardeners’ Top Picks here.

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