Native Son: My New Old Friend

“Time is too long to those who mourn, too short to those who laugh,
but to those who love, time is eternity.”
—Theodore Klein

Once in a great while, I get lucky enough to meet an old friend for the first time. Eleven months ago, I met Jimmy Isaac, a newspaper reporter here in Longview. We hit it off immediately, laughing and joking as if we had gone to high school together. I felt pretty much the same way a few days ago when I walked through Yew Dell Botanical Gardens in Crestwood, Kentucky.

I arrived on a day the gardens were closed, but a sweet lady answered the phone and graciously invited me to visit and meet the director, Paul Cappiello. Turns out Paul is friends with some of my botanical buddies, so we were off to the races right away. As he and I shot the bull for a while, I noticed his bookshelves…and how they looked a whole lot like my bookshelves, except more expansive. (I’m guessing that Paul hasn’t moved as many times as I have in the last forty years.) It made me feel all warm and fuzzy to see someone else had well-worn copies of my well-worn books. Geeks appreciate other geeks. I finally decided to let Paul get back to work and headed out to the garden.

Once outside, I immediately encountered my biggest problem with Yew Dell Botanical Gardens—I loved it all. From the great staff and quirky plant collections to the stunning architecture and wonderful whimsies, I simply loved it all. And just when I thought I was too old for this love at first sight stuff, I found myself smitten as a kitten…

Old stone walls standing sturdy,
a children’s garden where kids get dirty,
tree trunks thick with moss & lichens,
nature trails ready for hikin’,
an old log cabin full of charm,
a castle built the year I was born,
muscle-barked beech trees,
black & yellow bumblebees,
bourbon barrels on the veranda,
bamboo plants but no panda,
a secret garden that I found,
but where’s the entrance…underground?
flittering blue-blue butterflies,
dazzling to my own blue eyes,
mellow potting sheds,
killer color beds,
old barns, new barns,
millstones, headstones,
sculptures, benches,
cheery little finches,
greenhouse, green roof,
gift shop, soda pop,
perfect turf, saw a Smurf,
holly allée, Pewee Valley,
toad stools, toad lilies,
corn crib, flip my lid,
shaded gulch, smell of mulch,
house of rock, nursery stock,
Cosmo working, compost cooking,
meadow view, I see you,
Hosta fragrance in the air,
relaxing in that garden chair,
I close my eyes and dream of when
my feet will walk Yew Dell again…

Joe Pye Weed near the Visitor Center, a former tobacco barn; Variegated Hibiscus leaves frame the Log Cabin. All images by Steven Chamblee, except where noted. Click image for larger view.
The Holly Allée beckons you to explore; My favorite garden chairs.
The secret garden’s entrance is the real secret; A magnificent sculptural bench. Click image for larger view.
You can relax under beech trees. The Rock House built with Old World craftsmanship. Click image for larger view.
The Klein Home now houses administrative offices; Beech trees have “muscular” trunks.
Little logs let lots of lucky Lilliputians live long in the lap of luxury. Click image for larger view.
Fanciful fairy fortresses fill the forest with fabulous fenestrations and fine folklore fun!
Seems some of the fairies have borrowed a little inspiration from the Klein castle.
Completed in 1959, the Castle’s intriguing design is impressive & delightfully whimsical. Click image for larger view.
Stunning color beds can be found throughout the garden.
Fine lacework, framed in coiled vines, is one of the most unique aspects of Yew Dell. Click image for larger view.
A modest gate leads to the Walled Garden, which feaures a lovely circular pool. Click image for larger view.
One side of the vented corn crib serves as a pet cemetery, complete with hand-hewn markers. Click image for larger view.

I wanted you to discover the Yew Dell Botanical Gardens just about the way I did; by wandering about through it, without much knowledge of how it got to be. Now that you’ve had the tour…

It all began back in 1941, when Theodore and Martha Lee Klein started their adventure with 60 acres of farmland just north of Louisville, Kentucky. They spent the next 50+ years growing the family farm, lovely gardens, and a commercial nursery. Mr. Klein was an internationally-renowned plantsman, introducing more than 60 new varieties to the horticulture industry. He was also quite the craftsman, as evidenced by his unique mark upon the entire property, from the custom buildings and unique gardens to the delightful details studded like gems across it all.

Continued Below

Mr. Klein was 93 years old when he passed in 1998, and his legacy certainly lives on at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens. Although I never met him in the flesh, I feel like I do indeed know him. Mr. Klein worked hard with his own two hands. He would not settle for mediocrity with himself or his employees. He could be hard as steel and soft as a kitten, valuing beauty whether in the form of a stone castle, a graceful tree, or a delicate flower. He crafted a place that he could be proud of while living, and his community could treasure after he was gone. I imagine he had a little dirt under his fingernails his whole life…and took a certain pride in that, too.

Life is curious sometimes, like how you can miss someone you never actually met.

But I did meet Jimmy Isaac, who died August 21, at the age of 43. He lives on through his written words, sure, but his real legacy is that of his keen ability to connect with people, his trademark bear hugs, and a smile so genuine you could feel it in your heart. And he loved those crazy sunglasses. I felt a special bond with Jimmy; a brotherly kinship of candid honesty and solid trust. It was only after he passed that I found out hundreds of other people felt the same way about Jimmy. He built a great castle, too, but one with stones of friendship and love as mortar.

My mind swam through a river of ever-changing emotions as my feet slowly trod the mushroom-accented pathways at Yew Dell; enchanted one minute, reflective the next. I even cried when a little magnolia flower evoked a memory of my mother, then laughed out loud at the thought that the little out-of-season blossom waited just for me. (Who knows—maybe it did.) Accompanied by many friends as I walked alone, lost in the adventure of the moment.

I have walked larger and fancier gardens, ambled through smaller and more humble ones. I certainly appreciate grandeur, exquisite sculptures, and brilliant color displays as long as a football field. But in the end, what I value most about a garden is how it makes me feel, how it touches my heart and imagination. I love an experience that changes me for the better…inspires me to be a better person. Old friends do that. Great gardens do that. Yew Dell does that. As does Jimmy Isaac, even now.

Jimmy Isaac. Photo by Longview News-Journal.

For more info, go to or visit them on Facebook or Instagram. And by the way, Yew Dell was selected as a Top 10 Destination Garden in the United States by Horticulture magazine. Considering the competition, that’s quite the compliment.


Just so you know…the Longview Arboretum & Nature Center is OPEN! Summer hours are 10am-5pm, Wednesday through Saturday; Sunday Noon-5pm. Come out and see us! Check out the progress on the Southern Living Garden and other areas of the Arboretum. Please observe social distancing at this time. And bring your own brand of Zen! 903-281-2181

I need a road trip! Let me know if you’d like me to come and speak to your group sometime. I’m low maintenance, flexible, and you know I like to go just about anywhere. No city too big; no town to small. Just send me an e-mail at and we’ll work something out.

Posted by Steven Chamblee
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