Smith-Gilbert Gardens – Past, Present, and Future

Excerpts from The Dibbler by Jan Dahling with contributions from Dr. Robert Gilbert, Jack Driskell, Patti Locke, Cheryle Kerr, Courtney Vanderbilt, Doris and Don Meadows, and the City of Kennesaw

The location known as Smith-Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw has a rich history.  But this is no ordinary botanical garden…it is a unique, lifetime collection in a historical location…a garden vision hoping to be preserved.

These days with all the hustle and bustle of our fast paced lives, it’s great to have a place to be able to sit back and enjoy nature in all its splendor.   Land once belonging to the Cherokee Indians, then a cotton plantation home and finally Smith-Gilbert Gardens is a treasured place filled with incredible pieces of art, invaluable plants from around the world and a piece of Kennesaw and American history.   We take a look at the past, present and future.

Imagine a time when Georgia was a wild and young land; the Cherokee Indians called the North Georgia mountains including Cobb County home.  They were educated; had their own alphabet and language;  farmed and cultivated plants for medicinal and ceremonial uses.

When Native Americans were driven from their lands to Oklahoma in 1832, this area was parceled out in a land lottery.  Over time it was a cotton plantation and a home to many families including: Kellum, Whitfield, Roberts, Sorrells, Bennett, Butler, Moon, Beach, Dameron, Thorton, Frey, and finally Smith-Gilbert, for whom the Garden is named.

Hiram Butler House

Hiram Butler House

During the Civil War the Roberts family owned this property.  Roughly over 4,000 acres, the property extended from Pine Mountain to Kennesaw Mountain.  A house is shown on Sherman’s military maps; but it is not known if it is the Robert’s home.  The structure currently seen was built by Hiram Butler in 1880. It was constructed from bricks with the walls being a solid 12” thick.  The house was renovated in the 1940’s to include a Greek-revival façade, plumbing, air conditioning, updated electricity and the screened porch.

Fast forward to 1970, when Dr. Robert Gilbert and Richard Smith who purchased this house and 13 additional acres.  Dr. Gilbert and Mr. Smith took five years to renovate the house adding two greenhouses and a garage with an apartment above.  After their renovations it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Upon beginning renovations in the yard, they realized there were many unfamiliar birds on the property, as there still remained about 150 acres of surrounding woods.  With Kennesaw Mountain in very close proximity, one of the hottest birding sites in the Atlanta area, they found they were on a bird migratory path.  In hopes of attracting more birds they began planting fruiting trees and shrubs.  To date over 120 bird species have been identified on the property.  This was the beginning of the ‘Gardens’.  Dr. Gilbert (or Dr. Bob as he is commonly called) was most interested in woody plants and trees and Mr. Smith’s interest tended towards annuals and perennials; a perfect compliment to each other.  As they travelled, their interests in plants grew, and they added exotic varieties from Japan and China.

Over the years, Smith and Gilbert added more than 3,000 different trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. Dr. Bob ordered plants from U.S. nurseries that imported plants from around the world. Dr. Bob prided himself on ordering plants no bigger than 12” tall from plant nurseries and then growing them out in the propagation bed before finding them a home in the Garden. Many plants in their collection were from China and Japan and had never been grown here. Smith and Gilbert kept meticulous records about the species and developed their own computer program for the collection in addition to dividing everything into zones for their record keeping. This careful tracking of plants continues today.

Dr. Bob Gilbert by Courtney Vanderbilt

Dr. Bob also became fascinated by the art of bonsai, so many of the tree species began as study subjects for his bonsai collection. In addition to collecting plants, Smith and Gilbert began collecting sculptures from nationally recognized contemporary artists strategically placing them around the property.

After the passing of Mr. Smith in March of 2002, Dr. Bob contacted the City of Kennesaw beginning negotiations to sell the property to the City thus keeping it out of the hands of developers and preserve its unique character. The Master Gardener Volunteers of Cobb County (MGVOCC) partnered with the City of Kennesaw in late 2004 to help maintain the garden in its full splendor.  The sale to the City was official in January of 2005 when it officially became Smith-Gilbert Gardens. In 2008, a 501(c)(3) charity known as the Smith-Gilbert Foundation was formed whose mission is To support Smith-Gilbert Gardens as a resource for conservation, education and enjoyment of horticulture, fine arts and historic preservation.”

Dr. Bob remained on the property until the fall of 2009, when his new home in Franklin, NC was completed.  The MG’s were so honored with his presence, knowledge and love of the property as he took the time to meet with them every week to educate the group on a species that would be blooming or just share an article of interest.  He still visits the property working closely with the Bonsai Study Group.  Dr. Bob has become a newspaper columnist writing horticultural articles for the Franklin Press.

Today SGG includes a perennial flower border, a woodland walk, a bog garden, a rock garden, waterfall and water features, a conifer garden, a rose garden, Plant a Row for the Hungry vegetable garden (which has harvested close to 2 tons of produce donated to local food banks), a bonsai garden and beehives. Our second year of beekeeping classes has just been completed. A tragic plane crash, which devastated a portion of the garden, has been reclaimed and donations have allowed for a new camellia collection. Additional donations have replenished the bonsai display, which is the only public bonsai garden in Georgia.  It is a display garden for both the American Daffodil Society and the Georgia Hosta Society. The Atlanta Daffodil Society was instrumental in helping to identify lost varieties and we continue to add daffodils each year. SGG has now become an American Daffodil Test Garden. The layout of the naturalistic woodland setting provides a habitat for birds and other wildlife. The Garden is a member of the Atlanta Audubon Society and designated as a Wildlife Sanctuary.

Master Gardeners & Friends Thursday Work Group By Jan Dahling

MGVOCC’s mission statement is “to advance the horticultural education and practices of its members and to promote the knowledge of and interest in gardening to the members and to the public.” Currently the MGVOCC are working with the City of Kennesaw to help maintain the Garden, educate the public with classes and lead docent tours.  The Thursday Work Group, the Rose Warriors and the Plant A Row Group now include many volunteers, with some to little garden experience.  The MGs have taken the volunteers under their wing to help educate them.  Some volunteers have gone on to become Master Gardeners themselves.

In the future, Smith-Gilbert Gardens is looking to develop other areas of interest.  There is much interest to further the Demonstration Gardens to study, educate, and maintain research records on plant species.  There is a vision to promote public programs devoted to the history of the property, the fine art and the many plants – their varieties, care, diseases and pests with continuing education programs.  There is always something exciting and educational going on and we hope you will join us.  You’ll never know what you might find out.