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John Fairey Receives American Horticultural Society’s Liberty Hyde Bailey Award

Congratulations to John Fairey upon winning the American Horticultural Society‘s prestigious Liberty Hyde Bailey Award. The award recognizes individuals who have made siginficant lifetime contributions to at least three of the following horticultural fields: teaching, research, communications, plant exploration, administration, art, business, and leadership.

The 2016 awards will be presented on the evening of
June 2 during the Great American Gardeners Awards Ceremony at River Farm, the AHS’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

Fairey has been creating beauty at Peckerwood Garden since 1971, when he purchased the first seven acres of what has expanded to thirty-nine. With more than 3,000 species of plants, many rare and endangered, Peckerwood is the consummate plant collector’s garden.

Over the years, Fairey has been recognized for his lifetime contributions. In 2013, the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College awarded him the Arthur Hoyt Scott Medal for his “outstanding national contribution to the science and art of gardening.” John was also named a “Place Maker” by the Foundation for Landscape Studies, an award that will be presented in New York City in early May.

Peckerwood Garden, located in Hempstead, Texas, has been a Garden Conservancy partner since 1998. It is celebrated for its unique collection of rare plants, as well as its artistry.

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Sprouting New Roots: Houston Chronicle. April 8, 2016

Sprouting New Roots: Houston Chronicle.  April 8, 2016

Peckerwood Garden continues transition as founder passes his shovel to horticulturist. –By Claudia Feldman

White and purple wisterias are show stoppers at Peckerwood Garden and around southeast Texas.

A friend of John Fairey, one of the country’s great gardeners, once told him: “I feel sorry for your plants. I’ve never seen one not at the end of a shovel.” Fairey, 85, still gets a laugh out of the story, and he agrees. “I’ve never hesitated to move things if they’re in the wrong place.”

Recently, Fairey called on that same resolve as he completed some long-planned changes to his beloved Peckerwood Garden near Hempstead, a living laboratory of more than 3,000 rare and unusual plants from around the world.

Already he had helped cement the relationship between Peckerwood Garden and the Garden Conservancy, which helps great American gardens transition from private to public. And he’d transferred ownership from his name to the nonprofit Peckerwood Garden Conservation Foundation, with the provision that he be allowed to live on the property until he dies.

The final piece of the puzzle dropped into place in mid-January, when horticulturist Adam Black reported to work. The tall gardener with flowing blond hair will help carry out Fairey’s vision as long as he lives – and after.

Trichocereus terscheckii
Trichocereus terscheckii


Black, 41, is a native Floridian who grew up in the Everglades. While friends were playing video games, he was wading in the swamp.

“I’m a complete nature nerd,” Black says. “At 8, I was reading field guides and identifying plants. I can’t imagine living without them.”

Says Sarah Newbery, president of the foundation’s board, “We needed someone who is strong but also able to earn the founder’s trust. So our new director of horticulture couldn’t be so strong in terms of his own ego that he couldn’t listen and learn.”

Fairey, a painter and retired Texas A&M University professor, was looking for a very specific quality in the new horticulturist. He told Newbery he could teach someone to identify the plants at Peckerwood and how to care for them. What he couldn’t teach was passion for the job.

After a short pass at college, Black worked for reptile breeders in the pet trade, then managed the forest pathology and forest entomology laboratories at the University of Florida in Gainesville. All the while, he was collecting rare plants and cementing relationships with horticulturists around the globe.

Black was settled and happy in Florida when he learned about the job opening at Peckerwood. It sounded interesting, but he figured he wasn’t ready for a seismic change. But as the months passed and the position remained open, an old friend and mentor from Stephen F. Austin University, Dave Creech, urged Black to apply. At the same time, Creech talked to Peckerwood board members about Black.

“He’s a still-waters-run-deep type of person,” Newbery says. “Maybe he’s like a plant. He’s not the showiest flower. But the more you look at him, the more interesting and rewarding the looking becomes.”

Fairey and Black hit it off immediately, Newbery says. “The chemistry was there. They seemed to speak the same language.”

Hardy and low maintenance

Fairey bought property off FM 359, about an hour northwest of Houston, in 1971 and started creating Peckerwood Garden the same week he moved in.

His first planting – lycoris bulbs sent by his dad.

One of the 3,000 rare and unusal plants at Peckerwood Garden is this Himalayan weeping cypress.
One of the 3,000 rare and unusal plants at Peckerwood Garden is this Himalayan weeping cypress.

“I knew I had to get them in the ground,” Fairey says.

Back then, he taught design to first-year architecture students at A&M. Though he was and is obsessed with plants – he’s traveled the globe searching for what he calls “counterparts” to hardy Texas natives – his true love is garden design. It’s said that he paints with flowers.

“It’s about creating some sort of space, whatever space you want it to be,” Fairey says. “You don’t teach it; it comes through experience. You can help students learn to see, and you can turn them upside down mentally so they open their minds, but it has to come from within. It’s a slow process and sometimes very frustrating.”

Black, in his job just a few months, is still learning about the magical place Fairey created on roughly half of the 40-acre property, a combination of woodland and dry gardens. He has planted oaks, for example, from all over the world. Peckerwood contains 70 different types – about 170 in all.

Black’s personal favorite is a hand basin oak. “This is one all the collectors want,” he says. “The leaves are concave and the size of paper plates. Rainwater collects in them.”

A few of the other plants that Black admires as he steps a few feet into the garden: Chinese fringe trees, Australian grass trees, green goblet agave, pink flamingo grass, loropetalum (not pruned), conifers of all types, maples, dwarf loblolly pines, trilliums, meadow rue, mahonia.

Neither Fairey nor Black is big on garden doo-dads or flowers, per se. Most roses are a no. Most of the common plants found at big box stores are a no, too.

Instead, the two gardeners prize plants that are hardy and low maintenance – no matter their country of origin. They like plants with interesting foliage, texture and layers. They’re interested in canopies. In the most shaded section of the garden, tall trees, smaller trees, various bushes and ground covers keep company. The light is constantly changing, depending on the time of day, the season of the year.

Every time he walks into the garden, Black says, it looks different and he sees something new.

Not a copy


Fairey still directs the changes and improvements on the garden that he designed, planted and perfected.

But Black has more than enough work to do. With the 20 acres that are virtually untouched, Black would like to create a new entrance and develop the acreage in a way that is complementary to the existing garden but not a copy.

Also, Black hopes to develop the small nursery operation on site into a much larger business. Gardeners from across the region would jump at the chance to buy Peckerwood’s prized plants, and the money made in the nursery would help fuel the garden.

Black still has 1,000 of his own rare plants back home in Florida. He looks forward to moving them here, propagating them and sharing them with other gardens across the country. “They should be in multiple locations,” he says. “It’s not good to have all your eggs in one basket.”

Black also hopes to create a database of Peckerwood’s existing plants, offer more private tours and expand the visiting hours from occasional “open” days and special events to a more regular schedule.

And he is an ambassador of sorts. In addition to bringing plants from around the globe to Hempstead, he’s in touch with plant experts locally. Both he and Fairey want to be part of the burgeoning interest in gardens and green spaces in the Houston area.

As Black introduces himself around town, he finds himself having to explain the name “Peckerwood.” Some know the word as a disparaging term for rural white Southerners, but Fairey told Black he named his garden after the fictional southern plantation in the famous old book and movie “Auntie Mame.”

John Fairey
John Fairey

That’s the story, and both men are sticking to it.

A Japanese blue oak is one of 70 types of oaks at Peckerwood Garden.
A Japanese blue oak is one of 70 types of oaks at Peckerwood Garden.

To plan a visit to Peckerwood Garden, go to

See the original article at:

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New horticulture director begins work at Peckerwood Garden in Hempstead

Adam Black, an expert in rare, unusual and endangered plants, has been named director of horticulture at Peckerwood Garden in Hempstead.

“I look forward to working in such an important, fascinating and beautiful garden,” said Black, who comes from the Forest Pathology and Forest Entomology Laboratories at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Peckerwood, about an hour northwest of Houston, is receiving national attention for its vast collection of plants from Mexico, Asia and the United States, some of which are no longer found in the wild. Located at the convergence of three climate zones, the garden serves as a testing ground for plants that are beautiful as well as durable and suitable for the Houston area as it grows hotter, drier and also prone to flooding.

Retired Texas A&M professor John Gaston Fairey started the garden as his own in 1971. Over the years he mixed the familiar, such as magnolias and pines, with drought-resistant sun-loving plants like palms and agaves. “You just have to learn to live with these things, ” he told the Houston Chronicle last fall. “To be optimistic whatever happens.”

Today the garden has grown from 7 acres to 40 acres, including a former nursery property, and the Peckerwood Garden Conservation Foundation manages it and offers educational programs. Peckerwood also is a preservation project of The Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving exceptional American gardens and landscapes.

“Adam not only has the expertise and experience necessary to maintain and preserve Peckerwood Garden, he also possesses a long-standing passion for plants,” said Sarah Newbery,Peckerwood’s foundation board president. “He has many ideas for developing a broader network of support and expanded offerings to garden visitors, and we are extremely excited to see those ideas come to fruition.”

To visit Peckerwood Gardens, call 979-826-3232 to set up a tour, or check the site,, for information about public tours.

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John Fairey: plantsman extraordinaire

A visionary garden creator and plant explorer, John Fairey has had a significant influence on the plant palette and design aesthetic of southern gardens.

Over the course of his long career, John Fairey has created a significant legacy in plant exploration, conservation, new plant introduction, and garden design.

IT’S HARD TO pigeonhole John Gaston Fairey. He’s probably best known for Peckerwood Garden, the internationally acclaimed oasis he created over the last 40 years on an old farmstead in Hempstead, Texas, some 50 miles northwest of Houston. But over the course of a diverse career, the 84-year-old Fairey has also made a name for himself as an artist, college professor, conservationist, nursery founder, and plant explorer with a particular interest in Mexico’s flora. Through the unique array of trees, shrubs, woody lilies, and perennials from Texas and Mexico trialed at Peckerwood and distributed through public gardens and Yucca Do Nursery—a specialty mail-order nursery Fairey co-founded in the 1980s—Fairey has expanded the palette of plants available to gardeners throughout the American South. “John has truly been a pioneer in finding and popularizing plants from Mexico,” says Tony Avent, proprietor of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina. “While John certainly wasn’t the first American to botanize Mexico, his broad interest in plants other than cacti, the sheer number of trips, and his mail-order nursery outlet allowed a huge array of John’s finds to be distributed far and wide—something that many prior collectors failed to do.” Acknowledgment of Fairey’s accomplishments has come in the form of numerous awards, most recently with the Scott Medal and Award from the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 2013. He has also been recognized for his teaching, earning a National Teacher’s Award from the American Institute of Architects. Fairey and his former partner at Yucca Do Nursery, Carl Schoenfeld, received the American Horticultural Society’s Commercial Award in 1996 for their work.

An extended porch roof shades the veranda of Fairey’s house in Hempstead, Texas, above, and provides a restful place to listen to the rustling of palm fronds and view the sculptural forms of agaves and related plants in Peckerwood’s dry garden, top.


Fairey’s straightforward explanation for his passion is, “I garden because I want someplace wonderful to live.” He grew up gardening on his family’s farm in rural South Carolina and recalls weeding his mother’s garden in the mornings. Visits to Brookgreen Gardens near Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, as a youngster, along with exposure to a lively community of gardeners set him on a course that eventually found its greatest expression in Peckerwood Garden, one of the most ambitious and beautiful gardens and arboreta in Texas. As a young adult, Fairey moved to Philadelphia to study painting and pursue a career as an artist. Eventually he made his way to central Texas to teach design to architecture students at Texas A&M University in College Station. It was while exploring the byways of this section of southeast Texas that Fairey’s career took a radically different route.

Azaleas and ground-covering herbaceous perennials thrive in the shade of Peckerwood’s woodland garden.


No one who witnessed Peckerwood’s humble beginnings in 1971 could have predicted that the garden would have a far-reaching influence on gardeners and garden designers in Texas and beyond. A realtor showed Fairey the property surrounding a neglected farmhouse in rural Hempstead and he in the novel Auntie Mame, as well as for the many resident woodpeckers. In 1983, a tornado destroyed or badly damaged many of the pines that shielded the garden from the Texas sun. Overnight, the garden’s aspect changed from protected and shaded to open and sun-drenched. With the character of the garden radically altered, Fairey was forced to adjust his approach. Needing plants that tolerate the intense heat, he began to seek out regionally native plants, aided by a 25-year friendship with Texas native plant pioneer Lynn Lowrey. According to Fairey, joining Lowrey on a 1988 botanizing trip to northern Mexico was a life-altering experience, opening up a whole new realm of plants and an appreciation for the country’s botanical, ecological, and cultural riches.

During nearly 100 plant-hunting expeditions to Mexico, Fairey collected cuttings and seeds from many promising garden plants, including Chihuahuan orchid tree (Bauhinia macranthera), top, blooming at high altitude in the mountains.


Over the next 25 years, Fairey made nearly 100 trips to Mexico, often teaming up with horticulturists and botanists from universities, public gardens, and nurseries. During these experiences, he learned how plants adapted to their specific ecological conditions in scrublands, pine–oak forests, rainforests, and alpine meadows. He observed how magnolias could thrive beneath the high canopy of pine–oak forest in one location as well as how agaves could benefit by protection from the hot western sun on the other side of the mountain. Traveling in isolated mountain areas required a sense of adventure and the ability to overcome obstacles such as broken-down vehicles, hazardous terrain, and unexpected health issues. Despite these challenges, Fairey relished each trip. Naturally, the knowledge acquired on these expeditions, along with the plants collected on them, found their way into the newly emerging garden at Peckerwood. As Fairey explained in an article published in Pacific Horticulture several years ago, “Because the garden is on the edge of three bio-geographic regions, the piney woods, the coastal plains, and the post–oak savannah, geography provides as much variety as weather does for growing conditions. Vital to our mission is a trial garden for

In the evenings, Fairey and fellow travelers such as Mark Bronstad of Doremus Wholesale Nursery in Warren, Texas, took inventory of each day’s finds and bagged them for later propagation.

plants from areas that share similarly demanding conditions.” Plants and seeds from the expeditions also were shared with a wide array of public gardens, including the University of California–Berkeley, Harvard University and Smith College in Massachusetts, North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh, the University of California–Santa Cruz, the Chollipo Arboretum Foundation in Korea, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the United Kingdom. In the early 1990s, NCSU horticulturist J.C. Raulston distributed more than 7,000 plants grown from seed collected on Fairey’s Mexico expeditions. Marco Stufano, former director of horticulture for Wave Hill in New York recalls the “golden years” of these distributions to public gardens. “We at Wave Hill were fortunate to receive many of his introductions through the legendary generosity of the late J.C. Raulston, who accompanied John on many of his expeditions,” says Stufano. “Those were heady moments when we unpacked John’s latest finds.” Fairey put his plant-hunting skills to work for the American Cancer Society (ACS) in 1991, when he and Schoenfeld were asked to lead a Harvard University expedition to locate Taxus globosa, a rare form of yew native to Mexico. The ACS was interested in extracting a compound called taxol from the plant to test it for effectiveness in treatment of ovarian cancer. In 1987, Fairey founded Yucca Do Nursery in partnership with Schoenfeld, a former Texas A&M student who had helped with the restoration of Peckerwood following the tornado. The mail-order nursery, originally located next to Peckerwood, served as a means to propagate and share some of the more promising discoveries from the trips (for more on plant introductions, see sidebar, page 26) with gardeners. Schoenfeld later became sole owner of Yucca Do and has since moved the nursery to Giddings, Texas.


JOHN FAIREY’S PLANT INTRODUCTIONS Among Fairey’s tree finds is an unusual and rather tender magnolia called Magnolia tamaulipana ‘Bronze Sentinel’ (Zones 8–9, 9–7) that grows to 30 or 40 feet tall and bears creamy-white flowers in spring. Its new foliage has a purple-bronze hue that matures to deep green. Peckerwood has instituted a seed distribution program to ensure that the rare and worthy plants growing in the garden continue to be available to researchers and gardeners. Plants are also sold at the garden’s onsite nursery.  —B.N.

Peckerwood has been likened to painting and to sculpture. Fairey approaches the making of the garden with equal parts intuition and practicality. “The constant pursuit of new plants for the garden design has kept us aware of the need to evolve the garden continuously. With each addition and change, new problems arise to be solved, resulting in the evolution of the garden both visually and conceptually.” Along the way, Fairey observed that some plants from northern Mexico were actually better suited to cultivation in Texas gardens than their native Texas relatives. For instance, in a planting of sycamores that were subjected to a deep freeze, only the one from the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon survived. Fairey also developed specific planting techniques to cultivate plants capable of withstanding the assaults of excessive moisture, drought, heat, cold, and rapid swings in temperature, all of which are characteristic of the continental Texas climate. A good example of this is his dry gardens, which are mounded and mulched with gravel—a trick Fairey learned from Lowrey—to get the plants above the difficult native soil and to provide excellent drainage. Agaves, beschornerias, dasylirions, yuccas, palms, and other plants from arid regions thrive in these beds, which also provide protection from the region’s temperature extremes. These techniques have informed gardeners in similar situations throughout the South. Fairey tells his art students that light “is a free commodity and should be used all the time,” and he has adapted that advice for his placement of plants in the landscape. In northern Mexico, he observed agaves and other woody lilies thriving under oaks, so at Peckerwood, accordingly, direct light is filtered through the highest canopy of oaks and pines to become dappled light playing off horizontal branches and vertical shafts of the understory trees and shrubs such as magnolias and summer-sweets (Clethra spp.). Light ricochets off the swirling fronds of palms and spherical spikes of yuccas and agaves before finally being absorbed by the more saturated colors of perennial foliage and flowers near ground level. Many shades of blue pervade the garden, in its palms, agaves, yuccas, nolinas, and dasylirions, providing a cooling respite in sunny dry areas as well as in the woodland. Fairey reminds his visitors that blue is psychologically cooling and that the movement of leaves is equally soothing to the soul. Fairey also pays particular attention to space, placing plants so they form a series of intimate areas, some created with undulating forms, others with abstracted divides, each a part of a series of experiences. Plants are shaped to frame a vista or left protruding beyond the frame, requiring the visitor to slow down and gently pull the branches apart in order to proceed. “I think of gardening as an aesthetic experience involving all the senses,” says Fairey. “You are forced in this garden to touch and feel and smell, whether you want to or not.” Visitors also note the contrasting areas of the garden, with the north side of the house wooded and dark and the south side dry and sparse, with a minimum of easy-to-maintain plants. Three Nolina nelsonii are lined up by the pump house with their slender spiky leaves playing off the vertical ribbing on the Galvalume siding, inspired by vernacular buildings fast disappearing from the rural Texas landscape. The house, designed by architect Gerald Maffei, one of Fairey’s colleagues at Texas A&M, faces south to catch the winter sun and features a deep porch roof that shields the house and veranda in the summer. The view from the veranda features palms constantly in motion from the prevailing Gulf breezes, the rustle of their leaves, helping to screen the house and garden from the sounds of the nearby road.

JOHN FAIREY’S PLANT INTRODUCTIONS John Fairey’s expeditions to Mexico have yielded scores of plants that over time have become garden standards in the South and beyond. Many were originally released through Yucca Do Nursery, but others have been selected, trialed, and introduced through public gardens and other nurseries. Among them are many agaves and related plants such as yuccas, dasylirions, Mexican lilies (Beschorneria spp.), and hesperaloes. Fairey’s introductions include Beschorneria septentrionalis (USDA Hardiness Zones 7–10, AHS Heat Zones 10–7), which bears drooping clusters of pinkish-red flowers with green tips on a four-foot flower spike, and Agave gentryi ‘Jaws’, a four-foot-tall agave named for the sharktoothlike spines on its leaves. Fairey has a soft spot for rain lilies (Zephyranthes spp.), a genus of bulbous plants with grasslike evergreen foliage that bloom in response to seasonal rainfall. He has collected and grown dozens of selections, but a pink-and-white-flowered one with variable patterning, called LaBufa Rosa Group, is probably the most prominent of these introductions. —B.N.


The original seven-acre property has grown to 19 acres and the nonprofit Peckerwood Garden Foundation, which Fairey established in 1999, has acquired another 20 acres that was formerly the site of the nursery. The added acreage will be crucial to the garden’s future for a number of reasons, including as the site of an arboretum for its expanding collection of oaks. Mexico is the epicenter for oak distribution in the world and about half of the 230 oaks in the garden are Mexican species. The garden’s staff has grown along with the garden, rising to four full-time employees and aided by scores of dedicated, enthusiastic volunteers. One of Fairey’s goals with Peckerwood is to provide a cultural bridge between Mexico and the United States and to raise awareness on both sides of the border about the richness of the flora of northeastern Mexico. He also wants to draw attention to overgrazing and other economic pressures that are threatening the already fragile ecosystems. Fairey’s horticultural legacy encompasses plant exploration, conservation, garden design, and the introduction of a new palette of plants for American gardeners, yet for him the culmination of all these activities are reflected in his vision for Peckerwood. It is the art and science, as much as the beauty and conservation value of Peckerwood that has encouraged organizations like the Garden Conservancy to take an interest in the garden’s long-term preservation. The Peckerwood Garden Foundation is helping plan for a future that will not only share Fairey’s artistic vision but develop research and education programs to introduce plants that can enrich gardens and public landscapes in the region as a changing climate and diminishing resources intensify the challenges for people and plants. “Peckerwood is a laboratory garden testing a wide range of ‘new’ plants,” says Fairey. “It is a garden with a mission to encourage other gardeners to see a beauty in landscape that is consistent with our plants and climate. It is a garden that looks to the future, not to the past.”


ARTICLE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL NOBLE: This article was published in the September/October 2015 issue of The American Gardener, the magazine of the American Horticultural Society ( Used with permission.

Formerly director of preservation with the nonprofit Garden Conservancy, Bill Noble is a garden designer, consultant, and freelance writer based in Norwich, Vermont.


Plant Delights Nursery, Raleigh, NC. (919) 772-4794.
Woodlanders, Inc., Aiken, SC. (803), 648-7522.
Yucca Do Nursery,Giddings, TX. (979), 542-8811.

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Significant beauty takes time.

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.

John Fairey in 1998. Photo: John Everett, Houston Chronicle / Houston Chronicle

Photo: John Everett, Houston Chronicle – John Fairey in 1998.

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 Andrea White Gray Matters Contributor, Houston Chronicle

Read the original article at Houston Chronicle

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Second Annual Taking Root Luncheon: The Buzz Magazine

Second Annual Taking Root Luncheon


(From left) Christopher Knapp, Jill Whitten, Sarah Newbery, John Fairey, Thomas Woltz.

Peckerwood Garden Conservation Foundation (PGCF) presents its second annual Taking Root luncheon on Oct. 15. This year’s keynote speaker is Michael Van Valkenburgh, President & CEO of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. (MVVA). Based in Brooklyn, NY and Cambridge, MA, MVVA creates environmentally sustainable and experientially rich places across a wide range of landscape scales. Here in Houston, Mr. Van Valkenburgh is the landscape architect for the new Drawing Institute of the Menil Collection, which broke ground in March.

Peckerwood Garden is the culmination of founder John Gaston Fairey’s vision and passion for a majestic, living palette of artistic textures and colors, showcased in a garden that shows its respect for the environment through the use of natural terrains and conservation. It is also a place that maintains a habitat for biodiversity and a tranquil space for humans to enjoy nature.

Located in Hempstead, about an hour’s drive from Austin, College Station and Houston, Peckerwood Garden is poised on the edge of three climatic zones and is the setting for an expanding collection of rare plants native to a wide region of the southern United States and to Mexico mingled with their Asian counterparts. Private tours can be scheduled during the year, with the garden also open to the public on select dates called “Open Weekends.”

Dates: THURSDAY, OCTOBER 15, 11:30 AM
Price: TABLES AVAILABLE AT $2,000, $3,500 AND $5,000; INDIVIDUAL TICKETS ARE $150.
Phone number: 979-826-3232.
– See more at:
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THE PLANT MAN: Garden Design Magazine. May 9th, 2012

THE PLANT MAN: Garden Design Magazine. May 9th, 2012

John G. Fairey, a flora collector with a rare eye for design, transformed a Texas landscape into the famed garden Peckerwood. This is the story of a plant man and his garden. –By Pam Penick

"Dream Team's" Portland GardenGarden Design Calimesa, CA
A reflection pool with ancient Dioon edule in the foreground (one of the most cold-hardy of all the cycads) and, in the background,Serenoa repens (saw palmetto palm), Nolina nelsonii (Nelson’s blue beargrass), and Yucca rostrata (beaked yucca). The bench is designed and smithed by Lars Stanley. Photo by: Marion Brenner.

John G. Fairey’s eyes widen when he is asked to name a favorite plant, as if he’s been asked to choose his favorite child. “Why, all of them,” he replies softly in a sandpapery Southern lilt. And given his surroundings—some 3,000 species of rare and endangered plants at Peckerwood, his 40-year-old, renowned private garden near the Texas town of Hempstead—you’re rather inclined to believe him.

Named for the Georgia plantation in Auntie Mame, Peckerwood has earned plaudits for its astonishing collection of plants—largely from Mexico and Texas but also Asia—and for the horticultural skill with which Fairey grows them. It also deserves attention for the artistic design of its landscape—unusual for the garden of a collector, in which acquisition often supersedes design considerations.

Fairey’s vision for Peckerwood, which includes a light-dappled woodland, several shimmering dry gardens, and a parklike arboretum, developed not gradually but in a transformative awakening during a trip to Mexico. An artist and professor of design at Texas A&M, Fairey had bought 7 acres near Hempstead, an hour’s drive northwest of Houston, in 1971 as a country retreat. He planted azaleas, camellia, and other species familiar to him from his South Carolina childhood, but his interest in collecting plants wasn’t sparked until he met Texas plantsman Lynn Lowrey, who often trekked into Mexico to search out little-known species to bring back for propagation.

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Fountain heads by Otis Huband. Photo by: Marion Brenner.

In the summer of 1988, Fairey joined Lowrey on one of his expeditions to the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range in northeastern Mexico. They explored from desert to cloud forest, says Fairey, and searched for plants from dawn until after dark, by flashlight. The adrenaline high of the hunt hooked Fairey immediately, as did the evidence of the loss of fragile habitat caused by the overgrazing of goats and the sense that he could help save plants from extinction.

Over the years, Fairey returned to the Sierra Madre 100 times, fascinated by the variety and architectural beauty of the plants he found there. Back home he began using a newfound palette of sun-loving plants like yucca, agave, dasylirion, nolina, and dioon in his dry gardens and designing with shape and form, wind and sunlight, rejecting in one swoop both the English tradition of soft, flowering borders and the European model of formal framing and symmetry.

Today, plants reign supreme at Peckerwood, providing structure for garden rooms with their architectural forms and through massing of related species—“counterparts,” he calls them-from different parts of the world, like his screen of mahonia from both Asia and Mexico in the woodland garden. And as John Troy, a San Antonio landscape architect, points out, Fairey also plays up a feeling of surprise and dissonance by mingling plants not normally seen together on this side of the border, like palms and magnolias, pines and agaves.

One encounters these arresting combinations throughout Peckerwood but especially in the sunny, dry garden on the west side of Fairey’s residence, a two-story, corrugated steel-sided structure with a shady porch and attached art gallery. In the dry garden, fine, rounded gravel surrounds the plants and flows between them, forming paths and creating a natural-looking “floor,” knitting the garden together with a consistent color and texture. To the northwest of the house, in the woodland garden, pine straw supplants gravel, mulching plants and quieting visitors’ footsteps. Throughout, paving, walls, and other hardscaping are kept to a bare minimum, enhancing the naturalistic look.

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On the south side of John Fairey’s home is a fenced courtyard filled with Brazos River pea gravel and flagstones and a walkway constructed of quarter-inch steel plate frames paved with “iron ore,” a local gravel-and-clay mix. The two-part steel sculpture,Positive and Negative, is by Texas artist John Walker. The small tree to the left of the sculpture is Fraxinus greggii (little leaf ash). Behind the sculpture stands a small colony of Yucca rostrata. Photo by: Marion Brenner.

Fairey enjoys the act of planting and likes to experiment, digging things up and trying new combinations with such regularity that a friend once remarked he’d “never seen a plant at Peckerwood that wasn’t on the end of a shovel.” When siting plants, Fairey considers the play of light on leaves and the ever-present Texas wind, especially in the dry garden. During the blazing summer, that space is psychologically cooling thanks to an abundance of silver and blue-green leaves, like those of Yucca rostrata, a strappy Koosh ball of a plant that responds to every cooling breeze with a dazzling shimmer. Round forms and modernist geometry dominate here; spherical plant types like Echinocactus grusonii,Dasylirion longissimum, Nolina nelsonii, and Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata create a bouncy rhythm. Compensating for gully-washer summer thunderstorms and winter rains, Fairey elevates each plant for drainage on its own gravel hillock, “because I like mountains,” he laughs, a reference to his passion for exploring Mexico’s northeastern range. But Austin landscape architect James David sees the artist’s eye at work. “Individual plants are put on gravel pedestals for you to admire,” he says, “like buckets of hyacinths on display in a flower shop.”

“Every bit of the garden is thought through from a design standpoint,” says Bill Noble, director of preservation at the Cold Springs, New York-based Garden Conservancy. “If you know plants, then John’s collection will blow you away. If you don’t know the plants, you can still appreciate their beauty and the design of the garden.”

Because Peckerwood is such a unique repository and because Fairey is looking to the garden’s future, the Garden Conservancy is assisting him in transitioning it to a public entity. Asked what he would like for gardeners to take away from a visit to Peckerwood, which today encompasses 39 acres, Fairey says simply, “diversity.”

“John has expanded the palette of plants for gardeners in the South, Southeast, and Texas,” says Noble. “His garden has a lot to teach.” After a lifetime of teaching, Fairey remains himself an eager learner, continually experimenting with plants and treating his garden as an artist’s canvas on which he paints with light, foliage, and even the wind.

To plan a visit to Peckerwood Garden, go to

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