The Life’s Work of a Master Gardener

A new documentary tells the story of John Coykendall

Photo: Sarah Weldon Hackenberg

Blackberry Farm’s master gardener John Coykendall.

For nearly twenty years, John Coykendall has been the man behind the rows of heirloom tomatoes, beans, and corn at Blackberry Farm, the lavish epicurean resort in Walland, Tennessee. The 74-year-old master gardener and Tennessee native is also an artist who draws inspiration—literally, in dozens of sketchbooks—from his explorations across the South and in particular southeastern Louisiana, where Coykendall has traveled each year for more than four decades. A new documentary, Deeply Rooted: John Coykendall’s Journey to Save Our Seeds and Stories, shares not only Coykendall’s own life story, but also many of his memories and drawings from those trips of discovery.

The film follows Coykendall throughout an entire year of travel, planting, growing, and harvesting in both Tennessee and Louisiana’s Washington Parish, where centuries-old varieties of butterbeans and cowpeas grow in backyard gardens and a place Coykendall considers a botanical Eden. Interspersed throughout are pages from his more than eighty notebooks filled with sketches of speckled beans, sweet potatoes, and okra seeds, along with interviews with Southern food luminaries including G&G contributor and Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge and the Louisiana chef John Folse. All told, it’s a worthy tribute to Coykendall’s legacy as a small-farms flag bearer and one of the South’s most persevering seed savers. “The seeds that grow our food are part of our cultural heritage,” says Deeply Rooted’s producer, Christina Melton. “They have been saved by our ancestors and passed down to us. If we let them go, it’s on our watch. John talks about this all the time—‘I can’t let these things be lost under my care.’”

Look for the film on PBS affiliates around the country this fall and winter, but for G&G readers, Louisiana Public Broadcasting is also making it available to stream for free for the next two weeks. The documentary is also available for purchase on DVD or as a digital download.