November 8th, 2008
Peckerwood Garden

Peckerwood Gardens

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.

Peckerwood Gardens

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.

Peckerwood Gardens

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.

Peckerwood Gardens

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.

Peckerwood Gardens

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 Gardens

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.

Peckerwood Gardens

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.

Peckerwood Gardens

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 Gardens

Peckerwood is having open days this weekend. They had begun setting out plants to sell. None of us could resist, of course.

Peckerwood Gardens

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.

  1. Conscious Gardener @ Conscious Gardening
  2. Libby @ Aurora Primavera
  3. Lori @ Gardener of Good and Evil
  4. Pam/Digging
  5. 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

20 Responses to post “Peckerwood Garden”

  1. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    Very interesting and informative. Many concepts to contemplate… conservation, biodiversity, how a garden changes as trees and shrubs mature, experimenting with plants. Sounds like a great place to visit and explore. Good choices on new plants, too!

  2. From Diana - Austin:

    MSS – Great and informative post — you captured much more detail on your little notepad and I’m so glad you did as I was unable to recall all of the specifics. I was on overload by the time we left, but so enjoyed it. Glad you went and love your post!

  3. From Pam/Digging:

    Like you, I was struck by the fact that it is not a designer’s garden. It’s a thought-provoking, interesting, and generous garden with much beauty, but beauty is not the point of it. There is much to muse on after a visit to a garden like that. But how much we’d have missed if we hadn’t had such a knowledgeable tour guide.

  4. From Jenny Austin:

    Another look at Peckerwood. I do think that garden structures are important in the landscape. Maybe not quite so with large plantings, such as those at Peckerwood, as they can carry the design off with their own structure, but smaller gardens need this. Good luck with your new cactus garden!

  5. From linda:

    Thanks for the tour of this wonderful garden MSS!

  6. From renee:

    MSS, I enjoyed reading your observations on this amazing garden. Wish I could have been there.

  7. From Annie in Austin:

    Too bad I was unable to go on this tour with you – thanks for your insightful post, MSS. I love how you started out with the acorns and moved through the obviously man-made sections to the large oaks.

    Peckerwood as seen in your photos sort of reminds me of the Morton Arboretum west of Chicago. Now off to see posts by other Austin garden bloggers!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  8. From Kathy:

    I like visiting places that make me think, whether they are gardens or not. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

  9. From Libby:

    I am enjoying these posts almost as much as the actual tour! So far none of us has shown a shot of the circular memorial. It’s probably a challenge to photograph successfully. I really want to go back in a few years and see how that is coming along. Good luck with your acorns!

  10. From Vertie:

    I haven’t planted my acorns yet. I hope I end up with at least one tree. And thanks for the spider lilies!

  11. From Dorothy, Gardening with Nature:

    I envy you! I live just a short drive from Peckerwood, but, for one reason or another, have never made it there for one of their open days, much less my own personal, private guided tour! Thanks for sharing with us. Everything I know about it tells me it is a wonderful, wonderful place.

  12. From Cindy, MCOK:

    Like Dorothy, even though I don’t live all that far from Peckerwood, I’ve never been. I’m very much enjoying seeing it from the perspective of the various Austin bloggers. It’s making me all the more eager to see it for myself.

  13. From Lisa at Greenbow:

    What fun you gals had. Visiting a place like this would definitely stretch your imagination.

  14. From Bonnie:

    So fun to get to visit through all of the bloggers entries! Are you going to sprout your oaks? I’d love to give one a try.

  15. From Layanee:

    Another great view of Peckerwood. While our oak species are very different from those of Austin, TX it is amazing that there are so many in the genus with such different form. Love the speckled acorns.

  16. From Blackswampgirl Kim:

    Wow… all of these views of Peckerwood Gardens, seen at the same time, and yet such different posts as a result! It’s funny that you said, “John G. Fairey brings the spirit of Thomas Jefferson to the garden,” because I was thinking that as I read Pam’s post. (Or maybe she even mentioned that, too–I don’t know. I’m a little fuzzy-brained today.)

    Thanks for the tour, MSS.

  17. From Lzyjo TN:

    Hi there, I really enjoyed all of your photos from the gardens. When gardenhistorygirl was visiting China, i read her wonderful post about negative space in eastern gardening, it was fascinating. That lovely garden view through the woods reminded me of that.

  18. From Cheryl in Austin:

    You remembered so many details..your blog is a joy to read and I love your photos! It was nice meeting you:) Cheryl

  19. From Pam:

    Yes – restorative. That is definitely what it is to me! (The scientist in me also comes out, things are as much an experiment as anything). Peckerwood looks just beautiful.

    (But what I enjoyed most is your link to your Thomas Jefferson post back in April – I’m off to read that now).

  20. From angelina:

    I am never as open minded as you about gardens. It might be good for me to broaden my appreciation. For example, I don’t like gardens that are made to look like a natural habitat…I always think, if you want a garden to look like nature shaped it then let nature shape it! Or go to the wild woods and enjoy it. Why make one’s garden look like the wild?

    But I suppose it comes from what I think is the pragmatic idea that a garden isn’t just for admiring but for producing some or all of our needs: food, medicine, decoration.

    When I read about your garden trips I have to stretch my idea of what a garden is and It surprises me when I find myself admiring one that I wouldn’t have admired before.

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