Weekender: Odd Name, Great Garden
What does museum-quality Mexican folk art have in common with 39 rural acres landscaped with rare plants? Both thrive at Peckerwood Garden, an expansive experiment in horticulture southeast of Hempstead.
I discovered this dual treat on one of those clear September weekends when remaining indoors seemed as a crime against nature. The early morning air held that first crisp nip of fall, and Peckerwood Garden, open to the public by reservation and on nine spring and fall weekends annually, welcomed visitors that day for guided tours and a plant sale. Off I went.
The garden’s simple sunbaked entrance gave few clues to what I’d find in the living laboratory beyond: glossy-leafed vines and foundation plants that thrive with little water, new strains of salvias and penstemons, Japanese apricot trees, cold-hardy palms and yuccas, hybrid magnolias, and hundreds of other rarities nurtured by trial and error.
Peckerwood’s unusual garden and art gallery owe their existence to one very determined dreamer: John G. Fairey.
Arriving in Texas in 1964 with a master’s degree in fine arts, Fairey established a painting studio in Houston and accepted a professorship at Texas A&M’s College of Architecture in College Station. Soon tiring of the commute, he began to search midway between those two cities for a more convenient home/studio location. In 1971, he found the right spot to sink his Texas roots—seven acres on FM 359 south of Hempstead.
Gardening didn’t figure in Fairey’s original plans. “I set up my home and art studio in an old house that came with the property,” he says, “and when friends gave me plants, I began to apply my fine arts training to gardens and their design.”
His new home encompassed three different growing zones—the Post Oak Savannah, the Piney Woods, and the Coastal Plain—and his challenge became finding plants that would thrive in all three ecosystems. And then in 1983, a tornado ravaged his experimental plantings and felled numerous mature trees. With help from plantsmen Lynn Lowrey and Carl Schoenfeld, Fairey began repairing and replanting to capitalize on the open light conditions left in the tornado’s wake. As a result, today’s visitors follow guides through several garden “rooms,” each created by a combination of rare, native, and threatened species.
John Fairey’s botanical trips to northern Mexico sparked his interest in Mexican folk art. A gallery here showcases some of his collection.
My 90-minute group tour began in a meadow of unusual grasses and small trees and then moved to an arid area dominated by grey-green plants. “These move in the slightest breeze,” Fairey says, “psychologically imparting a sense of coolness.”
When asked about the garden’s peculiar name, John Fairey explains, “When I first came here, there were numerous woodpeckers, and I had a dog named Beauregard. Those two things combined to remind me of Peckerwood Plantation, home of Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, one of the main characters in the famous musical Mame.”
Multitrunked oaks from Japan, assort-ed bamboos, Satsuki azaleas, and other shade-loving plants led us on to the last tour stop, a creek that, according to local lore, slaked the thirst of Sam Houston’s men and horses as they traveled to the Battle of San Jacinto.
Acquiring adjacent properties over the years has increased the garden’s size to 39 acres. A new commercial arm of the garden, the Nursery at Peckerwood, propagates rare and endangered species and then sells, exchanges, or donates either plants or seeds to customers, universities, and botanical gardens around the world. Many of these plants resulted from Fairey’s botanical hunts in northern Mexico, working with the College of Forestry at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León or conducted on private property by permission.
Those south-of-the-border trips also sparked his interest in Mexican folk art. I arrived in time to reserve a space on the separate tour of the contemporary-styled gallery, where some 150 pieces from Fairey’s 500-plus collection are on display.
Highlights range from magnificent pieces of pottery and figurines to wild-ly painted ceremonial masks from Guerrero. While many of the gallery’s exhibits, particularly the antiques, were made by unknown artists, visitors also view unusual works by 20 masters of the folk-art genre. Particularly notable are the intricate clay figures by Oaxacan artist Angélica Vasquez and table-top dioramas—several with hundreds of small, black-clay figures depicting scenes from Mexico’s political and social history—by Carlomagno Pedro Martínez, also from Oaxaca.
The unusual building that houses Peckerwood’s gallery, offices, and residence grew from the bones of the original house. In 2002, Texas architect Gerald Maffee designed a new residential wing sided with anodized aluminum, and five years later, Austin architect Grace Riggan used the same style and materials to modify the original house into the gallery. Seamlessly united, these two projects created a simple, angular structure that settles neatly into its mixed garden setting.
Although he employs assistants, Fairey still plans and
plants everything in the garden and collects still more folk art; several large
commissioned pieces wait in Monterrey until safe travel to the region is once
again possible. Meanwhile, he considers Peckerwood Garden “a progressive
journey of discovery.” For visitors, that’s a perfect description of the
From the September 2011 issue.