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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

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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.
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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.

"Dream Team's" Portland Garden Garden Design Calimesa, CA

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.

"Dream Team's" Portland Garden Garden Design Calimesa, CA

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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