Arts & Culture

The Master Gardener’s Sketchbook

John Coykendall’s beautiful journal details the everyday struggles and joys of tending gardens on Blackberry Farm’s 4,200 rolling acres

There’s this thing gardeners do. It’s a hopeful thing we do to make it through the winter. When temperatures drop and there’s little green to be seen, we outline our spring garden plots on paper while we thumb through seed catalogues. Because we crave color, freshness, growth.


John Coykendall, Blackberry Farm’s master gardener.

Seventy-two-year-old Tennessee gardener John Coykendall is right there with us—taking notes on winter, dreaming of spring and doodling images of strawberries and tomatoes. But Coykendall’s scribbles stand apart—they might later inspire a painting or decorate the rim of a serving dish. Because Coykendall is both Blackberry Farm’s master gardener and a trained artist.

“Back in the days when I should have been paying attention in school,” says Coykendall, who studied at the Ringling College of Art and Design and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, “I was looking out the window and sketching pictures. Art and gardening are blurred together for me. I can’t tell where one stops and the other begins.”


John Coykendall tending to Blackberry Farm’s 4,200 rolling acres.

His beautiful journal details the everyday struggles and joys of tending gardens on the farm’s 4,200 rolling acres.

For example:

“Strong winds all day with freezing temperatures going lower as the day wore on. Tonight is forecast to be 8°, so cabbage and turnips in the field will be frozen past recovery.”

“…potatoes, onions, carrots, winter radishes, the China Rose Winter radish in particular, pumpkins, corn… Many have asked me when all of this began, and my answer has always been, 1954 was the year when my father showed me how to plant my first garden which consisted of corn and potatoes.” 




And among his lists of plants and notes are sketches—hopeful sketches. Round radishes and leafy lettuce, a proud barn, and wispy honeysuckle.



Now, his book is filled with dreams of the “Colorful Heirloom Garden” Coykendall is planning especially for 2015. He imagines the green and purple speckles on an heirloom bean, sunset-hued Oxheart tomatoes, Bloody Butcher red corn, and a rainbow of potato and carrot varieties.

Visit the farm this spring and summer and he’ll show you—on paper and in the garden. Until then, we can dream of the sunflower yellows, hot pepper pinks, and berry blues the changing seasons will bring to his—and our—gardens.