Big Idea: John Fairey and Peckerwood Garden
Idea person: John Gaston Fairey.
How it began: Fairey grew up in a little community South Carolina where both men and women gardened as a pastime. That’s where Fairey first had an inkling that, as he puts it, “Gardening is the highest art form because it evokes all the senses.”
In the late ’60s, he began teaching architecture and design at Texas A&M while he lived and kept a studio in Houston. Eventually Fairey tired of the drive, and in 1971 he bought seven acres in Hempstead, a town about halfway between Houston and College Station. As he rediscovered his love of gardening, he expanded the property to 39 acres. He called the place Peckerwood Garden for two reasons: as a salute to the plantation in Auntie Mame; and in recognition of the woodpeckers that frequent the property.
How it grew: At first, Fairey played it safe and planted azaleas, camellia, and other species familiar from his South Carolina childhood. But as friends gave him trees, plants, and shrubs, he began to experiment.
In 1983, a tornado hit the garden, and he lost all of the original trees. “It’s not going to cure itself by just looking at it,” Fairey thought. He set to work rebuilding, filling the former shade garden with sunloving plants.
The garden’s mission evolved in 1988, when Fairey joined a plant expedition to Mexico. With Texas plantsman Lynn Lowrey as his mentor, he started collecting seeds of rare Mexican plants and bringing them home to propagate. Over the years, Fairey returned to the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range in northeastern Mexico 100 times.
Too often, he found evidence that overpopulation was destroying many of Mexico’s native plants. When he went to view rare plants that he had admired months earlier, he was often saddened to find that they were dead or had been eaten by goats.
On each trip he expanded his collection of sun-loving plants such as palms and agave. On the grounds of Peckerwood, he mingled them with unlikely “soil” mates such as magnolias and pines.
Along the way, he expanded his collection of plants from the american Southwest, and started exchanging seeds with Asian collectors. “We have so much to learn from our neighbors. Plants know no borders,” Fairey says. “Therefore, why should civilized people?”
That approach has made Peckerwood a unique natural environment centered around heat- and drought-tolerant plants — and thus, plants that are well-suited to our area’s changing climate.
Today the typical gardening philosophy is: Plant native. Fairey likes to experiment and plant what grows. He shares his seeds, plants, research, and knowledge with nurseries, research institutions, and the public.
Fairey doesn’t see gardening like painting. For him, paint is paint, and a garden is a three-dimensional experience and environment not a two dimensional canvas. But at Peckerwood Fairey pairs his mission of rescuing plants with his need to create a beautiful environment.
Although he’s resolute on the point that most of gardening is “heartbreaking hard work,” he concedes that there is magic in his handiwork. “The magic is in the fall and winter light dancing and bouncing one canopy to the next. It is truly special when you can get five canopies layered in a garden.”
His favorite plant color is silvery blue-green: “It is psychologically cooling in the heat of summer and dazzles the eye in winter with the lower light.”
He sees Peckerwood as philosophical statement as to the virtue of patience, which he came to appreciate teaching design at A&M for thirty years.
“Significant beauty takes time,” he maintains. He bought a magnolia from Lynn Lowery in the 1970s that took 19 years to flower. “It was well worth the wait,” says Fairey. He’s also outlasted freeze damage, drought and failure. “You just have to learn to live with these things,” Fairey says. “To be optimistic whatever happens.”
Although Peckerwood is a private garden, it is open to the public on select weekends and by private tours year round. “What gets me excited is everyone here that has a part in making the garden special,” Fairey says about visitors to Peckerwood.
Next steps: Fairey has created a Peckerwood Garden Foundation and is working with the Garden Conservancy, a national organization, to transition into a public garden.
Bottom line: “It’s the act of planting the plant that’s important.”
Andrea White Gray Matters Contributor, Houston Chronicle