Botanical bonanza at Peckerwood Garden

For new visitors, the name Peckerwood tends to elicit raised eyebrows because of the word’s history as a racial slur in the South. But touring Peckerwood Garden itself — it was named, explains the owner, after the plantation in Auntie Mame — induces amazement, both because of the owner’s extensive collection of rare plants and because he’s been at it for more than 40 years, utterly transforming his Hempstead, Texas, property from farmland to an artistically designed collector’s garden, which is now guided by the Garden Conservancy as it transitions to a public entity.

On April 19, I made the two-hour drive east along with a few friends (that’s Lori of The Gardener of Good and Evil pictured at top), and we took a guided tour. While it offers ticketed open-day visits, Peckerwood is still very much the personal garden and home of artist John Fairey, a plant explorer and collector of rare specimens from northern Mexico and Asia and a recently retired professor of architecture at Texas A&M University. His house is the corrugated metal building screened from public view by layers of trellis, wall, and fence.

I wrote about Peckerwood for Garden Design magazine a couple of years ago, and the article is available online if you’d like to know more about the garden and its soft-spoken owner. For this post, though, I’ll just show you some of my favorite scenes from the tour, like this terracotta-colored wall with five faces spouting water into a rectangular pool, which flows under the wall to be enjoyed on both sides.

Whimsical faces

The dry garden is the most dynamic space, with shimmering, spiny plants of monumental size clamoring for your attention, like these Mexican grass trees, or toothless sotol (Dasylirion longissimum). I like how their lines echo the lines of the metal structure behind them.

A metal sculpture is reminiscent of the shape of palm fans.

A long pergola offers shade, which was welcome on this warm, humid day.

Fun details abound, like this variegated octopus agave.

And these Dr. Seussian characters, tagged as Yucca desmetiana ‘Blue Boy’, although they look pretty different from the one I’m growing (aka Yucca aloifolia ‘Blue Boy’).

I’ve visited ceramist Marcia Donahue’s garden in Berkeley, California, which makes it even more fun to run across her art in other gardens. These phallic, bamboo-like poles are instantly recognizable as her work.

Jazz hands

In the woodland garden, sunbeams illuminate plants for a brief period around noon, as light filters through tall trees, each one planted by Fairey decades ago.

Across a woodland stream you get a tantalizing glimpse of a blue wall and a prehistoric-looking garden of palms and Yucca rostrata. I’ve longed to see this part of the garden for years, but after three visits to Peckerwood this is as close as I’ve gotten. Apparently the garden needs funds to construct a safe bridge for visitors to cross the creek and see this area. Until then, this part of the garden is always closed to visitors. Sigh –so close and yet so far!

Weeping boxwood — this is cool.

Vertically laid stone for edging a small change in level

Lovely white flowers on a shrub I neglected to get an ID for. Update: it’s likely mock orange. Thanks, readers!

More silvery blue palms

And more Marcia Donahue art, perhaps? I saw carved skulls like these in her garden.

This sunlit rondel is lovely. Our guide told us a little about the trees and shrubs here, but my memory for plant names is terrible — perhaps because I’m always walking away from tour guides to take pictures. It would be wonderful if Peckerwood’s website had descriptions of each of its gardens, but such things always take money and volunteer hours, of course.

Most of the plants are planted atop berms for drainage, which allows for greater diversity than what could be grown in sometimes soggy clay.

The arboretum, where a vast collection of Mexican oaks has been grown from seed gathered on plant-hunting expeditions. This place really is a plant nut’s mecca.

Amid the majestic oaks, prairie nymph (Herbertia lahue), a native wildflower, was blooming in the lawn, showing that even the most common and lowly plants offer plenty of beauty as well.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

28 Responses

  1. ladyhawthorne says:

    I believe those white un-named flowers are mock orange.

    Thank you for taking us on tours through your blog, as I get to know and understand the new soil and climate I now live in, your blog is invaluable.

  2. peter schaar says:

    I have loved Peckerwood for several decades now. Watching it change and grow is a rewarding experience. I hope the bridge is built soon, because the area across the stream is the original dry garden and is amazing to walk through. Thanks for the tour, Pam. Your photos bring out the true character of the place.

  3. Denise says:

    nice to have a blogger admit that it’s so hard to do everything at once: camera, notebook for plants names, pencil behind the ear, eyeglasses in the hair — don’t I know it! And on top of it all, trying to be attentive to tour guides as some dazzling plant distracts and draws your attention elsewhere. Wonderful to see Peckerwood again. Thanks, Pam.

  4. I love the fountain and reflecting pond with water lilies. The pond reminds me of the simple, graceful reflecting pond at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Fla. This garden has many sweet touches, too. Nice that the Prairie Nymph wildflowers were blooming while you were there.

  5. Bob Beyer says:

    I have been to Peckerwood Gardens many times but not recently. I used to have the weeping boxwood when in Houston but had to leave it behind when we moved. The white unidentified rose is probably “White Out”, one of the knock out roses. So glad Peckerwood is being protected for future generations to enjoy. It is a jewel.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      They were selling the weeping boxwood at their plant sale, and I was tempted but had nowhere to put one. It’s very striking, but large! —Pam

  6. Shirley says:

    It’s a beautiful garden. We enjoyed our tour a few weeks earlier and I haven’t posted yet. Didn’t get too many plant names either, just took it all in.

    A plant list is in the works but it might be a while until it’s publically available. Sue Howard was lecturing on the process when we were there but didn’t have time to stay.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Shirley, thank you for that link! I’m so glad to know that John’s records about each plant he collected are being recorded and will eventually be available in a plant database. Also, I look forward to reading your post about your Peckerwood visit. —Pam

  7. Chris F says:

    I’m going to take LadyHawthorne’s word on the white flower. It reminds me a of bush that grew in my neighbor’s yard that she called “Dogwood Bush”. It wasn’t really dogwood, but that was the “old lady garden name” it was called by. Never have figured out what it really was.

    • Chris F says:

      WELL, just out of curiousity I did a search and it turns out that Mock Orange is sometimes also called English Dogwood. Little ole neighbor ladies were right.

  8. Astra says:

    My guess is that it’s a cistus.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Cistus and Philadelphus (mock orange) do have similar looking flowers. Cistus is unusual in Texas though, so I think it’s probably the mock orange. Of course, John does grow many unusual plants! —Pam

  9. TexasDeb says:

    The white bloom sure looks like some sort of dogwood and the leaves are very similar to our native rough-leaf dogwoods. Score one for the little old neighbor ladies perhaps!?

    Such a lovely estate and an incredible legacy as well. Pam, do you know if Prof. Fairey will continue to live there after the gardens are opened to the public full time?

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Deb, I do not know, although no one said anything about him leaving the garden now that he’s retired. I assume he’ll stay on and keep on planting. —Pam

  10. James S says:

    I am fairly certain about the white unnamed flower. Years ago I bought a philadelphus (mock orange) from Yucca Do when it was still associated with Peckerwood. I think it was ‘Natchez’ but it looks exactly like the posted picture.

  11. Tara says:

    Beautiful, Pam!

    What a great photo-garden tour. This is my introduction to Marcia’s art!


    • Pam/Digging says:

      I would have linked to Marcia’s website, Tara, but although many articles have been written about her art and her garden, I couldn’t find a website. Old school! But yes, her art is quite distinctive. I’ve encountered it at gardens across the country, from Chanticleer in PA to the Dunn Gardens in Seattle. —Pam

  12. “Shimmering spiky plants” – yet another unique quality of using them. Someday I hope to visit Peckerwood…I had no idea about the origin of that name, and I lived in Montgomery AL!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I can’t quite picture you living in Alabama, David, so deeply have you established your desert gardening creds. I do hope you get to visit Peckerwood one day soon. —Pam

  13. Lori says:

    It was a fun day! I am still amused that they sent us to a biker bar for lunch.

    My many photos didn’t turn out very well, alas.