Sprouting New Roots: Houston Chronicle. April 8, 2016
Peckerwood Garden continues transition as founder passes his shovel to horticulturist. –
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.
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.
“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.”
That’s the story, and both men are sticking to it.
To plan a visit to Peckerwood Garden, go to peckerwoodgarden.org.
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