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Even among gardeners, a famously optimistic bunch, John Fairey’s sunny spirit stands out. Every morning, whether during the frigid winter or dripping-hot summer, he steps outside his door in southeastern Texas to plant, prune, weed, and above all, look for surprises. “Gardening is about discovery. It’s the act of doing and making, not the end product, that’s important,” says the South Carolina native, who moved to Texas in the 1960s and in 1971 began creating the now-legendary world of Peckerwood Garden (named for the Georgia plantation in the madcap 1955 novel Auntie Mame).
Pictured, a gravel path winds between pines into the dry garden near the house, where sheared Walter’s viburnums (Viburnum obovatum) contrast with the silver forms of saw palmettos (Serenoa repens) and other drought-tolerant plants.
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Founder John Fairey began gardening as a child, and his aesthetic vision incorporates his South Carolina roots and his passion for Mexico’s culture and landscape. In his 40 years at Peckerwood, he has learned that many heat-craving desert natives stand up well to extreme cold, while others need coddling when August temperatures crack 100 degrees. On his 10 most intensely cultivated acres, there are moody woods where light sifts down through replanted pines and oaks, a sunny meadow edged with Mexican specimen trees, a stream shaded with bald cypress, and a pebbled courtyard where giant agaves splay among blue fan palms, cycads, and tightly clipped viburnum shrubs. Throughout the garden, succulents rise from gritty mounds, a trick to boost drainage that also, in effect, presents each as an art piece against the layers of other plants. Fairey continues to be amazed by what transpires there. "Every day, I see things I didn’t see the morning before -- or the hour before,” he says, smiling beneath his hat. "It’s like being on a plant expedition: Your adrenaline goes sky-high."
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Some of the sheared viburnums have melded together over time, introducing fluid curves among the dry garden’s spinier shrubs and trees.
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A palmlike cycad (Dioon edule) and the round-clipped Texas pistachio (Pistacia texana) flank a reflecting pool.
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The floating porch has a bridge that links the residential wing to the art gallery and office.
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Galvanized aluminum sheaths all of the buildings on the compound.
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Fairey planted bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) around the spring-fed creek to prevent the banks from eroding and to honor the Texas setting and his Carolina roots.
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Nearby, crinum lilies open spidery blooms.
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The Entry Court
The entry court features sculptures by Texas artist John Walker.
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A Pretty Background
Against the background of oaks and pines, bristling dasylirions close in on agaves and nolinas.
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