November 8th, 2008
Visiting Peckerwood Garden leaves me examining, once again, what a garden is. The first thought that springs to mind, and what I find most around the garden blogosphere, is the ornamental garden. For many of us gardening is about growing pretty flowers. Some are talented enough that they also design with plants, arranging flowers and foliage in complementary ways, considering not only spatial relationships among plants but changes over the seasons and over years.
People who design ornamental gardens often complement the plantscapes with hardscapes, with garden ornamention and furnishing to create outdoor living spaces. All that can be found at Peckerwood but it was not the essence of the garden.
Others turn to gardening to grow their own food. I do a little of both but neither is the primary reason I garden. I am among the group that finds gardening restorative. I’m not a garden maker; I’m a garden putterer. I like to be in the garden because I need to touch the dirt, to crumble it in my hands, to ground myself in silence and the physical world after hours spent at the computer.
As we move across the gardening spectrum from those who design with plants to those who collect them, there is one category that I don’t come across often either in gardens blogs or in my other garden reading: the experimental garden. And that, I think is what Peckerwood Garden is—an experimental garden.
Which is not to say that Peckerwood is not ornamental. It is. Not only are the beds laid out in pleasing ways but there are sculptures, a fountain and reflecting pond, a wisteria trellis, and great tree-lined walk bordered one side by a spring-fed creek and punctuated on the far end by the only live oak on the property.
As natural as the scene below may look, it is a made garden. All these trees were planted by John G. Fairey who began the garden in 1971. In 1983, a tornado swept through Peckerwood Garden destroying all the old trees.
There is even a formal, yew-hedge encircled space, a memorial to an old friend. Despite all this, it did not seem like a “designed” garden in the same sense as Powis Castle, Arley Hall, or Tatton Park. I think the main reason for that is that, except quite near the house, it is relatively free of hardscaping. As our wonderful guide, Chris, said, the shapes and sizes of the beds change as the trees grow and the shade alters the understory plantings. The design is extremely fluid and curvaceous.
Peckerwood is also obviously a collector’s garden, filled with rare plants collected from all over the world, many plants and trees propagated from seed. Yet it is not a garden of rarities for the sake of possessing what others do not have. Quite the opposite. The beating heart of this garden is its quest for biodiversity and conservation of the world’s treasures in the face of habitat destruction and the American suburban predilection for monoculture.
Peckerwood is a garden laboratory devoted to collecting, propagating, experimenting, and sharing. John G. Fairey brings the spirit of Thomas Jefferson to the garden.
I learned at the garden that Mexico has a tremendous biodiversity and that plants from Mexico are extremely adaptable to extremes. Plants that have been gathered from 6000 feet adapt to the almost sea-level altitude of east Texas. Plants that we think of as desert-born thrive on the extra water as long as they are planted in well-drained soil.
The tree above and the tree below are both oaks from Mexico. The dense, shrubby one above looks almost like a weeping yaupon holly and the one below has an open willowy look. Chris not only encouraged us to examine some acorns but to take them home; then he told us how to sprout them. When I looked at my acorns closely, I notice they were all beautifully mottled, quite different than the chocolaty dark acorns of my red oaks.
At Peckerwood Garden, they propagate plants, grow them on in the nursery for a year or two, set them out with shade cloth and irrigate them for another year, and then they are on their own. (Only 3 of the 21 acres are under irrigation.) Can they stand the alternating drought and flood, heat and cold that makes gardening in Texas such a challenge? The search is on for plants that can. And it is not limited to Mexico or the Americas. Complementary trees of the same species are sought out from China, Japan, or South Africa for comparison. Although careful not to introduce invasive species, Mr. Fairey does not feel constrained to stick just to local species either. Like the plant explorers of earlier centuries (including Thomas Jefferson), he is most interested in experimenting, making scientific comparisons, and finding out what works than promoting either local or exotics for philosophical reasons.
Peckerwood is having open days this weekend. They had begun setting out plants to sell. None of us could resist, of course.
Diana at Sharing Nature’s Garden organized a group of us Austin garden bloggers for this private guided tour. I’ll update this post with a link to the others as they become available.
- Conscious Gardener @ Conscious Gardening
- Libby @ Aurora Primavera
- Lori @ Gardener of Good and Evil
- Vertie @ Vert
Thanks, again, Diana! And to John Fairey who came out to greet us, and to our wonderfully informative, friendly, knowledgable and tireless guide, Chris.
by M Sinclair Stevens