His Secret Garden

John Fairey has taken the natural diversity of the Mexican landscape and created a Texas garden of unexpected delights.

John Fairey's quest for the 'bronze sentinel' magnolia began with an old map of Mexico. Commissioned by Harvard's Arnold Arboretum to search for a plant to use in an experimental cancer therapy, Fairey noticed a reference to a sought-after magnolia indigenous to northeastern Mexico. Slow drives on primitive dirt roads (he traveled only 21.45 miles in one day), climbing to 4,000 feet, led him to a forest of large oaks, through groves of sweetgum and pine, and at last to an area filled with what turned out to be the prized, and exceedingly rare, copper-leaved Magnolia tamaulipana.

There are stories like this for each of the approximately 3,000 species of plants in Peckerwood Garden, Fairey's 19-acre property about an hour northwest of Houston. Take, for example, the 20-foot-tall Mexican sycamores planted in a grove beyond the wisteria. They were grown from seed collected in Veracruz. A Mexican hornbeam called 'El Cielo' was found near a cloud forest in Ciudad Victoria. Fairey's "expeditions" take him, armed only with hints from old documents, to the most remote areas of Mexico. He stops when he spots a leaf slightly different from those around it, marking the location with mileage from the starting point of the day and returning months later when the plant sets seed, then transporting both seeds and cuttings back to Peckerwood.

Fairey's intense immersion in the Mexican landscape is one of the keys to the organization and uniqueness of the garden. Mexico, says Fairey, is a land of radical climatic and ecological contrasts within small geographic areas. "You can be on the east side of a mountain and see dogwoods growing in a moist canyon," he says, "and walk only a few feet to see agaves and yuccas thriving on a hot and dry western slope. On the north side of this same mountain there will be plants happier with cooler temperatures and shade. This glorious landscape of our good neighbors to the south must be treasured and protected."

At Peckerwood he has taken the most unusual flora of Mexico and set them down in a small corner of Texas. Visitors to the garden, which is open to the public only one weekend each month, move through "rooms" to experience firsthand the paradise Fairey has created. These rooms are designed so that from each one visitors can glimpse into the next, as if they were standing on that wildly diverse mountain in Mexico. A heavily shaded wooded area is set on the bank of a stream, and from there you can peek into a sun-loving dry garden, which leads into a wide-open field of green.

The woodland area, shaded by oaks and evergreens and trees ranging from American beech (usually impossible to grow in this climate) to five different species of ironwood (even the most sophisticated of gardens usually have only one, the European hornbeam), is studded with the rare flowers of the Magnolia tamaulipana that Fairey found in Mexico and the glossy-leaved 'Peacock' camellia. Strategically located Lindera angustifolia trees, whose copper-colored leaves are tinged with mauve in late fall, lead to the main house—a modern structure sheathed in galvanized aluminum. Set around it are the architectural plantings of a dry garden, where the erect spiny leaves of certain yucca plants play off the others Fairey has sculpted into mounds of emerald and silver. The Yucca rostrata dominates, with blue-green branches spiking out of its thick trunk. A low rectangular pool sits to one side of the house and runs under an apricot-colored freestanding wall set in the middle of it. The idea of cool water and the warm color of the wall contrast perfectly with the dry gravel and greens and grays of the plants.

The small enclosed dry garden sits next to an open field. In the middle of this four-acre field, six posts wreathed in wisteria stand like statues arranged in a circle. The wisteria, planted in 1995, include the bright white 'Shiro Kapitan,' the purple-flowering 'Amethyst Falls,' and the pink-flowering 'Rosea.' The other three have not yet bloomed but will begin to flower in another few years. This plant "installation" is surrounded by an impressive collection of Mexican and Texas evergreen oaks: the loquat-leaf oak (Quercus rysophylla), with its beautiful big leaves; the Monterrey oak (Quercus polymorpha); the so-called graceful oak (Quercus gracilis), with its blue-green cast; and Quercus sartorii, which Fairey introduced after a trip to the El Cielo Biosphere Reserve.

But the specifics of the Mexican landscape are only part of what makes a visit to Peckerwood feel like a tour through the most meticulously assembled collection of botanicals rather than just another stroll through a pretty garden. The name hails from the fictional Southern plantation owned by Beauregard Burnside in Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame. And it all began when Fairey moved to Texas to teach design at A&M after studying fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania with people like Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still. He bought the first seven acres in 1971 because they were midpoint between Houston and College Station and made for an easy commute. He started to clear land and plant trees and shrubs for protection from the wild Texas wind and intense summer heat. Then his friend, gardener Lynn Lowrey, who pioneered the use of native and Mexican plants in Texas, took Fairey along on one of his legendary Mexican plant expeditions in 1988. "On that first expedition with Lynn," says Fairey, "we saw everything from desert to cloud forest. It was an introduction to a whole new way of seeing."

The original seven acres grew to 19, and today Peckerwood ranks among the world's great gardens, on a par with (although radically different from) places like Sissinghurst, in England, and Ninfa, south of Rome. In some ways Peckerwood is even more interesting. Part of the wonder is Fairey's defiance of the traditional clean borders and familiar clear order of landscape design. Here all you can expect is . . . the unexpected. There are azaleas and pink 'Galaxy' magnolias, yews and cedars that are native to China and Taiwan, Mexican pines and junipers.

Fairey, in fact, views Peckerwood as a kind of private "studio," a place where he can bring together the artistic and the horticultural and use "trees, shrubs, shade and light to balance the composition." Note the abstract John Walker sculpture in the dry garden around the house, as well as the newly built gallery where visitors to the garden can take in Fairey's collection of Mexican folk art, including work by craftsmen like Angelica Vasquez and Carlomagno Pedro-Martinez.

But Peckerwood is more. Part conservation project, part laboratory, it has quite literally changed the face of American gardening. Through the Yucca Do Nursery, founded by Fairey and current owner Carl Schoenfeld, plants have been disseminated to a vast network of botanical gardens and nurseries around the country. In the '90s these institutions tested these plants for hardiness in different climate zones and helped to maintain them until they were ready for commercial distribution. For example, salvias of many kinds, some introduced by Yucca Do, are now widely available and used by chic gardeners as tender perennials or annuals. Ten years ago they were impossible to find; today they're a flower-border staple.

This pioneering spirit extends to all areas of the garden. Fairey is always pushing the boundaries of the plant palette. And somehow he manages to grow plants from all over the world in a harsh climate. A trained eye is shocked to see beech this far south in Texas—how do they endure the extreme variations in temperature from below freezing to 105 degrees F, torrential rains to drought conditions? (The secret is in perfect siting and good drainage.) Curious as to whether there was a defining philosophy behind it all, I asked. It's simple, he replied: "Trial and error. People who don't make mistakes don't do anything."

Peckerwood Garden, 20571 Route 359, Hempstead, Texas, is open to the public one weekend a month from 1 to 5 p.m. Private tours can also be arranged by calling 979-826-3232; www.peckerwoodgarden.com.


Bringing Peckerwood Home

YUCCA DO NURSERY Started by John Fairey and Carl Schoenfeld, Yucca Do has an extensive selection of plants that do well in Texas as well as other parts of the South. They also stock unusual bulbs, such as the delicate rain lily Zephyranthes, with its crocuslike flowers, and an extraordinary variety of yuccas, cycads, agaves, and rare oaks. Open to the public during visiting days at Peckerwood Garden, which is adjacent to the nursery. Order by mail or Internet. Route 359 at Route 3346, Hempstead, Texas; 979-826-4580; www.yuccado.com.

GREER GARDENS Famed for its Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), rhododendrons, azaleas, and camellias, this nursery is perhaps best known for its 40 different kinds of magnolia, including such hybrids as 'Elizabeth' and 'Galaxy,' both of which are grown at Peckerwood Garden. At 1280 Goodpasture Island Road, Eugene, Oregon; 800-548-0111; www.greergardens.com.

FORESTFARM This fantastic catalogue offers unusual plants of all kinds. Among them are choice collections of honeysuckle, clematis, magnolia, and wisteria (including 'Amethyst Falls') grown at Peckerwood Garden. $ By appointment only. At 990 Tetheron Road, Williams, Oregon; 541-846-7269; www.forestfarm.com.

WOODLANDERS INC. Specializing in native Southern species and warm-zone plants from all over the world, this nursery has an unusual collection of the summer-blooming and often very fragrant Clethra, such as Clethra pringlei, also grown at Peckerwood. In addition, it has a collection of more than 65 oaks. The catalogue includes a bibliography for people who want to extend their knowledge. $ At 1128 Colleton Avenue, Aiken, South Carolina; 803-648-7522; www.woodlanders.net.

HERONSWOOD NURSERY One of the most distinguished nurseries in America, Heronswood offers perennials, trees, shrubs, and vines for every climate. Owner Dan Hinkley is responsible for writing the witty descriptions of the plants, many of which he has found on his plant-exploration trips all over the world. One new addition to the catalogue is a listing of each of the workers' (known as Heronistas) own favorite plant combinations. At 7530 NE 288th Street, Kingston, Washington; 360-297-4172; www.heronswood.com.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.