Plant Explorer: John Fairey

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Plant Explorer: John Fairey

by Barbara Paul Robinson
photograph by Rocky Kneten

JOHN FAIREY HAS BEEN LIVING AND GARDENING in Hempstead, Texas, for over 40 years, but his mellifluous voice and gentlemanly manner still reveal his Southern roots. Originally a painter, Fairey was in his colorist-minimalist phase when he began his garden, Peckerwood, “Painting came to seem so limiting,” he recalls. “The garden was three-dimensional.” Imagine a silvery blue sphere of spikes atop a tall plinth—no, not a modern sculpture (although there are many in the garden), but a dasylirion, one of the many astonishing plants Fairey has brought back from his plant-finding trips to Mexico and brilliantly placed through the garden.

Growing up on a farm in South Carolina, Fairey hated chores in the garden. However, he loved excursions with his great aunt and uncle, both passionate gardeners, to hunt for camellias to add to their collection. These early forays helped train his eye to spot the unusual, a talent he used to good advantage later, on his own plant-finding expeditions.

While in graduate school in Philadelphia, Fairey put together a special collaborative art exhibit, and one of the participants encouraged him to take a job teaching design at Texas A & M University. In 1971, Fairey bought the piece of Hempstead property that would become Peckerwood. It wasn’t much, only an abandoned farmhouse with a few little outbuildings on seven acres. When Fairey began to work on his new home, he gave up painting and concentrated on creating three-dimensional art in his garden, using plants with strong shapes and textures, adding to the few grand old trees left over from past owners. The garden had begun.

Disaster struck in 1983 when a tornado demolished nearly all the trees on the property. It took Fairey over five years to clear all the debris, but calamity was an opportunity to address the suddenly empty palette surrounding the house. Carl Schoenfeld, one of his many students who came to pitch in and help with the cleanup, became so engaged in the project that he stayed to buy land next door and start his own nursery, Yucca Do, building on the plant-finding trips the two began to take in the late 1980s.

Fairy’s own first excursions came about somewhat serendipitously, when he was invited by the late Texas nurseryman Lynn Lowrey to join him on a botanizing expedition to Mexico to look for plants. Lowrey had been doing these trips for over 30 years, and though Fairey was just one of his nursery customers, Lowrey undoubtedly recognized his special potential. On that first trip, Fairey put his old plant-hunting abilities to good use when he identified an unusual Stynax. Although he had no idea it was rare, he knew it was different, that it didn’t fit in with the plants around it. When the seed was grown on by the late J.C. Raulston, it proved to be not Stynax youngiae as originally thought, but S. plantanifolius var. mollis. An offspring still grows at Peckerwood.

That trip to Mexico was just the first of over 90 trips since. All the trips are arduous, the work continuing for long hours. “When you are collecting, your adrenaline goes sky-high,” says Fairey. (His once spiked a bit too high—he suffered a heart attack during a collecting trip. He insisted that the others press on, leaving him behind in a Mexican hospital.)

Fairey’s particular interests are dasylirions, yuccas, agaves and oaks, but he is always looking for plants with good potential for the garden. Encompassing three different growing conditions, namely piney woods, coastal plain and post oak savannah, Peckerwood boasts a diversity of plant material that thrives in these different conditions, including Texas natives along with the plants brought back from Mexico. Inspired by the Ruth Bancroft Garden in California, Fairy decided to preserve the garden through the Peckerwood Garden Conservation Foundation, which he established with the help of the Garden Conservancy. An office has been built and the old house converted into a gallery to display his collection of Mexican folk art. Fairey hopes Peckerwood, currently 19 acres, will receive a gift of another 18 to hold an arboretum. Enhanced by striking sculptures created by artist-friends and architectural features like the cobalt-blue wall that sets off one area of the garden much as a frame sets off a painting. Peckerwood incorporates what Fairey calls “garden events.” Although no longer a painter, Fairey’s painterly sensibilities are evident everywhere at Peckerwood Garden, his lasting masterpiece.