Blogger field trip: Peckerwood Garden

Funny name and all, Peckerwood Garden is a place I’d wanted to see for years. But because it opens to the public for only a handful of days each year and it bars children under 12 from visiting (for safety reasons), as well as the fact that it’s a two-hour drive from Austin, I never could make it happen.

Enter the Austin garden bloggers. On Friday, Diana of Sharing Nature’s Garden organized a road trip for the Austin garden bloggers, and seven of us took two cars and headed east toward Houston to get a private, guided tour of Peckerwood. Here we are near the end of our tour: Diana, Cheryl, me, Libby, MSS, Vertie, and Lori. My thanks to our welcoming and knowledgeable guide, Chris, for taking our photo.

Peckerwood is a collector’s garden—and arboretum—created by architecture prof and plant hunter John Fairey, who planted his first tree in 1971. Today the garden is a nonprofit conservancy, but John continues to reside there, and he graciously greeted us when we arrived. Here is how he describes his amazing garden on its website:

[Peckerwood] is a collection of more than 3,000 plants including many rarities; it is a conservation garden containing examples of numerous threatened species, many of which are no longer found in the wild; it is a laboratory garden testing a wide range of “new” plants and our Mexican discoveries. 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 pioneering garden exploring new plants and cultivation methods and aesthetic concepts for other gardeners. It is a garden that looks to the future, not to the past.

Our visit would not have been the same without our guide, Chris, a young man who’s been at Peckerwood only two years but seemed to know everything about its plants and the history of the garden. A former Austinite, he now works at Peckerwood alongside just one other gardener (plus John Fairey), not only maintaining what’s there but continually trying new plants and opening new garden spaces.

This shimmering desert garden greeted us as we entered. The green clouds of pines rising behind the agaves and yuccas looked incongruous to me—pines don’t generally grow in Austin; you have to go to East Texas to see them—but the effect was lovely. The garden straddles the line between acidic East Texas and alkaline central Texas, so they can plant a broader spectrum of plants than we can in Austin. This area also gets a lot more rain than Austin, but they explained that by planting high on sharp-draining, gravelly berms, the xeric desert plants have no trouble surviving wet winters. In fact, Chris reminded us, cacti enjoy good soil and extra water, but they must drain well or they’ll rot.

Rather than take you on a sequential tour of the garden, from dryland to shade garden to oak arboretum, I’m going to just jump around and show you my favorite scenes. Of course, there had to be a ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave (A. ovatifolia ). Chris pointed out a biggie in the dryland garden, but I spotted this one paired with a cycad in a shadier section.

More beautiful blues, this time from a variegated agave in front of a painted stucco wall. I shot this photo across a spring-fed stream lined with tall bald cypresses (John had planted every one from seedlings or seeds). But because the bridge had washed out, we were not allowed to cross over. Rotten luck! I’d seen pictures of this section of the garden at Soul of the Garden and in an article by Scott Calhoun, and I was very disappointed to miss seeing it up close. Well, it’s one more reason to go back another time.

Here’s an image of the creek itself, its still water turning the cypresses upside down.

Another water feature also serves to screen John Fairey’s home and create a semi-enclosed sitting area.

This wall fountain is double-sided, with amusing, clay-tile faces on each side spitting water into a green pool that flows under the wall and into a rectangular, formal pool.

A furled agave leaf, tightly bound with a thorny embrace.

I was astonished and impressed to learn that John planted every tree—every tree—in the mature, forested shade garden. That sweep of tall pines and the massive cypresses lining the creek and the huge oaks? Yes, every one.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia ) climbing a bald cypress (Taxodium distichum )

This path leads from the lower shade garden toward John’s house and the spitting-face fountain.

The Gulf muhly grasses (Muhlenbergia capillaris ) were in pink autumnal splendor.

And this excited my attention. A Lindheimer muhly (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri ) had crossed with a Gulf muhly (on left), Chris explained, to create a new, beautiful hybrid (on right). It had the height and form of the Lindheimer but the pink inflorescence of the Gulf muhly. Will we be seeing this in nurseries one day?

In the dry garden, sharkskin agaves (Agave ferdinand-regis x scabra ), with their handsome, smooth leaves and black-tipped spines, paired with sotols and yuccas.

If only I had room for one of these! By the way, has anyone else noticed how many agaves have names relating to sea creatures? I’m thinking of squid agave, octopus agave, ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave, and sharkskin agave. You could do an ironic ocean theme with a dry garden. Just throw in a few giant clam shells, like in Lotusland.

Small cactus

Near the spitting fountain, this wood-and-wire trellis screen creates a friendly division between the private space of John’s house and the public spaces of the garden. That’s a line of sharkskin agaves on the left.

This silvery blue agave nestled against the orange wall of the fountain. The tips of its spines matched the color of the wall.

Mewing and friendly, this gray cat appeared as we rested by the fountain.

What beautiful yellow eyes and handsome whiskers.

This little fellow has handsome whiskers too. When our tour ended, I bought this beavertail prickly pear (Opuntia basilaris), which Chris told me grows to about three feet tall and wide while the pads remain small, like mouse ears. Well, maybe not that small, but that’s what they remind me of.

I’m glad I could bring a piece of Peckerwood home with me. Even if it does sound funny to say so.

All material © 2006-2008 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

41 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Yes that name sure sounds like a joke would be coming. I could stroll down the lane by the creek. It is a cool looking oasis. I so enjoyed all you chose to show us Pam. I always have agave envy after seeing your posts.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the tour, Lisa. I’m just certain you can grow at least one or two kinds of agaves. Have you tried Parry’s agave? I think it’s a cold-hardy one. You can see how Peckerwood does it—plant them high and dry. —Pam

  2. Gail says:

    Pam, It is hard to say the name without smiling. Fantastic garden. It is going on my must see list. Was it good to see a Whale’s Tongue Agave in a shadier spot? The muhly crossing is spectacular; I wonder if we will see it in the trade soon. Thank you for the tour…a spectacularly gorgeous place. What a dedicated plantsman, John Fairey is, he and his staff have created a wonderful garden. Gail

    I’d read that the ‘Whale’s Tongue’ might need a little shade in our hot climate, as it comes from a cooler, higher region of Mexico. I actually worried it might burn in my former full-sun garden, though it never did. So I’ve felt fairly confident that it would take its new part-sun location in stride. And it was nice to see it confirmed at Peckerwood. (See my reply to Les’s comment below for an explanation of the name.) —Pam

  3. Les says:

    When you published your previous tease-post I started looking forward to this one. I have heard about this garden before and filed it in the back of my brain as one to remember. It looks like you had a good time and you took some great photos. Thank you for sharing. BTW when I was a boy a great insult was to call someone a “peckerhead”.

    Of course we had to ask about the name. Chris said that John named his garden, tongue in cheek, after the plantation in Auntie Mame. But Wikipedia does list “peckerwood” as a pejorative word for “poor white.” Add a little sexual innuendo, and it makes for an eyebrow-raising name. —Pam

  4. Cheryl says:

    Let’s go to Lotusland next! I had a blast and thank you so much for driving…great post…as always!

    Now THAT would be a road trip. :-) —Pam

  5. Frances says:

    Hi Pam, so wonderful. I found those painted walls to be the perfect backdrop for the dramatic agaves. And those face tiles are like nothing else ever seen! They had just planted the desert area when I was there and were hoping for success. Looks like the plan worked by raising each plant on a hill of its own. You need an orange wall for your whale’s tongue! Or an orange screen maybe? Looks like everyone was very glad to be there. Thanks for these beautiful shots.

    I would love to have an orange wall, Frances. Or a deep blue wall, or a golden yellow wall, or an apple green wall. Ah, garden dreaming. —Pam

  6. cindee11461 says:

    Thank you for a wonderful tour(-: You are so lucky to have so many local friends to go on tours with. I bet you had a blast!

    I DO feel lucky to have made so many local garden-blogging friends. It’s become a de facto garden club. —Pam

  7. What a great trip! Interesting that Virginia creeper grows over such a broad range. It grows wild along our road here in upstate NY.

    It grows wild here too, Kathy. Isn’t that interesting? This is one of those plants that will have no trouble adapting to global warming. —Pam

  8. Layanee says:

    Hmmmm….I am still chuckling at that name. Your pictures are truly artistic. Thank you for taking us along with the Austin bloggers. Great trip.

    Thanks, Layanee. Were your ears burning on Friday? Your name came up—someone asked if I’d had the chance to meet you. We were foiled at Spring Fling 2008, but perhaps SF 2009, eh? —Pam

  9. Patsi says:

    Love the silvery blue agave. Lovely photos!!

    Thank you, Patsi. —Pam

  10. It’s inspirational to read about gardens imagined and created primarily by one person, not crews and committees. It gives us all hope!

    Thanks for sharing your trip to the garden with us.

    Yes, that’s true, Carol. It’s inspirational to see what one person can do. But clearly John Fairey has superhuman drive—and he’s still adventuring in the wilds of Mexico to collect new specimens. —Pam

  11. Diana Kirby says:

    Great close-up shots, Pam, and the shot of the Cypress trees in the creek is just wonderful. It was a great outing – so glad you went!

    I wouldn’t have missed it. Thanks again for organizing us, Diana! —Pam

  12. Loved the tour Pam. It does inspire one to create an equally enchanting garden suitable to my climate that could be on private tours a couple of decades from now. And I won’t have to plant every last tree.

    No, you’ve got a great start on the trees already, Christopher. I can totally see you making a garden that demonstrates the range and variety of plants one can grow in the Blue Ridge mountains, all surrounding the cozy cabin. —Pam

  13. Bob Pool says:

    Great tour Pam. I didn’t realize how tall you are.

    It’s hard to tell from my sidebar photo. ;-) —Pam

  14. Jenny says:

    It was nice to revisit Peckerwood again through your excellent posting. How wonderful to get the personal tour as it makes a huge difference to any garden visit. I have been looking for the Whale’s tongue agave but haven’t found one yet. May have to get one from mail order.

    Yucca Do was offering them by mail order earlier this year, but they’re in the process of moving to Giddings right now, and their inventory seems to be in disarray. I would offer you a pup if mine ever offsets, but apparently the ‘Whale’s Tongue’ does not offset. This is part of the reason they’re hard to find. —Pam

  15. linda says:

    outstanding photos of a wonderful garden Pam! Thanks for sharing your tour!

    My pleasure, Linda. I’m glad you enjoyed it. —Pam

  16. Great photo shoot of the place. I do love going there. You all are so lucky to have your group organized to a point where you travel with each other.

    The earliest members of our group have been meeting in person for a couple of years now. Since last year’s Garden Bloggers Spring Fling, we’ve enjoyed even more real-world activities. —Pam

  17. Monica says:

    I think Peckerwood should be renamed Prickerwood, but oops, wait, I guess that’s not much better is it? Maybe Pricklywood! In any case, it looks like a great place. I love all your closeup shots, especially.

    The alternatives don’t really help, do they? I’m glad you enjoyed the pics, Monica. —Pam

  18. Randy says:

    That’s a wonderful post, it must have taken some time to go through the garden and see all the great plants.

    The tour lasted about two and a half hours, Randy, and we didn’t even get to see the section across the creek. —Pam

  19. A photo tour with you is always wonderful, Pam, and since I couldn’t be with you this one is especially appreciated. Peckerwood looks spectacular. You must have been in heaven with acres of agaves and grasses ;-]

    Virginia creeper grew wild back in Illinois, too and was growing on the wall of our previous Austin house when we moved in and was already on the fence at this house when we got here. Guess the birds must plant it everywhere.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    We missed you on the road trip, Annie. Peckerwood is amazing, but the key was the private tour. Without Chris pointing out special and rare plants and explaining so much about them, we’d have really missed out. —Pam

  20. Libby says:

    Your photos, as always, are awesome. I particularly loved the blue agave/orange wall–it looked like a Georgia OKeefe painting. Wonderful post!!

    Thanks, Libby. You know I can’t resist an agave photo. And I absolutely covet that colorful wall. —Pam

  21. I just visited Quail Gardens in Encinitas, and Solana Succulents did a whole reef-themed dry succulent garden there. I’ll be posting my photos (someday soon…) but it’s worth looking up. I’m interested if people like the idea or think it’s just a little too-too, as my aunt would say?

    How interesting. Please let me know when you post the photos. I’d like to see it so I’ll know whether it’s fun or a little “too-too.” —Pam

  22. Robin says:

    You are an amazing tour guide! I love going on these wonderful blog excursions with you! This was a fun one!

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Robin. —Pam

  23. Brenda Kula says:

    Intensely beautiful photos! You have inspired my love for these agaves. I find such beauty etched into their unique texture.

    Brenda, I’m glad you enjoyed the tour. I just realized you changed your blog title and its look. It’s really great, and your photos are a treat. —Pam

  24. chuck b. says:

    Sigh…I love gardens!

    Peckerwood’s not so funny once you say it to yourself a few times. Peckerwood, Peckerwood, Peckerwood. Yep. That’s all it takes.

    Peckerwood. Hee, hee. Nope, it’s still funny. —Pam

  25. Vertie says:

    I had no idea the Mickey Mouse cactus is going to grow to three feet. I am going to have to rethink where I was going to put it. Friday was great fun, and it’s so cool to see everyone’s take on the garden.

    Well, you could always just prune it to keep it at a certain size. I may have to do that with mine too. —Pam

  26. Cindy says:

    Pam, I wish I’d been able to join y’all at Peckerwood. By the time we got home from the vet, I knew it was a lost cause. After seeing your pictures, I’m all the more determined to visit in on the next Open Days.

    I hoped you’d be able to join us, Cindy, and I’m sorry you couldn’t. But it’s good that you are so close to the garden, at least, so you can easily pop by on another Open Day. —Pam

  27. Lee says:

    Oh, man. I’m envious!

    It was a really nice tour, Lee. Definitely worth the drive. —Pam

  28. Phillip says:

    I’ve seen this garden on tv before but it even better getting your perspective on it. It must be wonderful to see it in person.

    It was, Phillip. I’d love to see it again someday. —Pam

  29. Roxane Smith says:


    As usual, your photographs are lovely and truly do justice to such an iconic property. John has inspired so many designers here in Austin with his unique style and remarkable combinations- never mind the serious work of finding previously unknown and un-named species of plants that need to be brought to the public.
    It’s one of the many reasons Garden Conservancy is proud to support Peckerwood as it transitions from John’s private residence to public operations. Your group visit was welcome and appreciated, to be sure.

    Roxane Smith
    Austin regional Representative for Garden Conservancy

    Hi, Roxane. Thanks for your comment, and your kind compliment. Peckerwood is truly an inspirational garden. —Pam

  30. What a beautiful and unique garden. It has always annoyed me that, even though I live just a short drive away, I never manage to make it there for one of their infrequent open days. Perhaps I should make that one of my gardening goals for next year. Thanks for your unique perspective on the place.

    Or maybe the Houston-area garden bloggers will organize a private tour of their own! —Pam

  31. Aiyana says:

    Peckerwood was a derogatory name, along the order of pinhead, that kids called each other when arguing, back when I was in school. That’s what I think of every time I hear the word!
    Very nice tour of an interesting garden. The photos are great as usual.

    It’s a strange name for a garden, to be sure. But our guide said it was all very tongue-in-cheek. —Pam

  32. bonnie says:

    Thanks for the tour and allowing me to visit online, at least. Glad it was such a great trip.

    We missed you, Bonnie. I’m sorry you weren’t feeling well enough to join us. —Pam

  33. Jean says:

    Wow, that muhly cross is really beautiful. Also interesting to see your comment about Yucca Do moving to Giddings. That should make it easier for you to get some cool stuff. Thanks as usual for the tour!

    My pleasure, Jean. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Yucca Do was not encouraging to us when we inquired about visiting while we were at Peckerwood. They’re primarily an online nursery, but we had thought they opened to visitors on occasion. Apparently not—at least not right now. —Pam

  34. What a great tour, Pam… I’m sure that you only showed us a sampling of the trees, but it’s still hard to believe that he planted all of those trees himself. Wow. And that muhly cross is beautiful, but it would be even better if they figured out how to make a hybrid that is hardy, to, oh, say… zone 6? *grin*

    Oh, there were so many trees, Kim. A virtual forest near his home, and an arboretum of oaks further out. The muhly cross was a fortuitous accident. Maybe one spring you should plant a Gulf muhly and see if you can get a happy accident with some of your cold-hardy grasses. ;-) —Pam

  35. […] later, two car-loads of Austin bloggers took a road-trip to the collector’s paradise that is Peckerwood Garden, and later I reviewed Plant-Driven Design, an excellent gardening book by local authors Scott and […]

  36. Dawn Sturgis says:

    Hello, i am a landscape designer in souther California and am interested in finding out where you obtained the three faces to the spitter fountain at John Fairys home. I have a client that would love to have thos in her garden.
    Is it possible to recieved that info?
    Thank you for your responce,
    Dawn Sturgis

  37. […] Rose Emporium in San Antonio up soon. If you’re curious about last year’s blogger field trip to Peckerwood Garden, click here. And if you’d like more of the San Antonio Botanical Garden, click for my post […]

  38. marti says:

    Not sure about the Virginia creeper (invasive, invasive, invasive)climbing the bald cypress.

  39. […] I visited the fascinating Peckerwood Garden in Hempstead, Texas (about midway between Austin and Houston) a couple of years ago on a garden-blogger field trip. Peckerwood is not a typical botanical garden but a well-designed collector’s garden of rare and unusual specimens from the southwestern U.S., Mexico, and beyond. I remember succulents, oaks, and magnolias being particularly well represented. To visit you must check their website for a listing of weekends when the garden is open to the public. […]

  40. Carolyh says:

    Peckerwood has an “open” weekend March 26-27, 2011 – cost $10.00 for adults.

  41. […] a few from the local gardens of Austinites Jill Nokes and Selena Souders of Big Red Sun, and Peckerwood in Hempstead, […]