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Quercus alba at Melbourne Botanic Gardens
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Plant Focus

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Six oak cultivars originally described by Jef Van Meulder in 2014.

John Fairey (1930–2020)

Originally published as a Facebook post on March 17, 2020

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Quercus crassifolia at The John Fairey Garden

Remembering John Fairey, legendary plantsman and founder of the amazing Peckerwood Garden, who sadly passed away early this morning. I visited him in Hospice recently and though his body was frail his mind still remarkably sharp. I spent several hours with him reminiscing about plants he had seen in his epic collecting trips into northeastern Mexico (over 100 plant collecting expeditions) with collecting partner Carl Schoenfeld. Both he and Carl co-founded the famous, former Yucca Do Nursery where the results of their explorations were released to public horticulture. Eventually John stepped away from his involvement with the nursery and focused solely on the garden, but the collecting trips continued, not just with Carl and nursery manager Wade Roitsch but with so many plant-oriented colleagues in the botanic garden/academic world, as well as individual plant enthusiasts that shared the passion. Even if you haven’t heard of Peckerwood or Yucca Do, chances are good you have almost surely encountered now-mainstream plant selections that originated through their work, whether you knew it or not.

John’s 20 acre garden around his home became one of the best cultivated collections of northeastern Mexican flora, tied together with Texas natives other rare plants from warm climates around the world he received in exchanges with collaborators, or purchased from the other premier collector nurseries. Exceptional taxonomic collections included Mexican oaks, Mahonias, Philadelphus, “woody lilies” (Agave, Yucca, Dasylirion, and relatives), Zephyranthes and Habranthus, hardy palms, warm climate conifers, and more. Many of his Mexican collections include many species new to science. Meticulous field notes for each wild-accessioned specimen makes the collection scientifically valuable and the garden has served as a resource for many botanical studies. Though it was never the original purpose, the garden soon became important ex-situ conservation repository for the highly localized species he would find… and some never seen again due to land alteration.

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A Section Lobatae oak that John collected in the Sierra de San Carlos, Tamaulipas, Mexico, close to Quercus sartorii, but as yet not firmly identified 

Besides the unique plant diversity, what makes the award-winning garden stand out among all others was John’s artistic vision. John was focused on structure, definition of space, layering, texture, dramatic contrast of light and shadow and how it shifts through the day creating what he called “dancing light”. His garden is a combination of formal and orderly arrangement yet naturalistic and organically blended together. It is a garden that looked amazing every day of the year being that he employed architectural features, balance of evergreen and deciduous foliage, and proper plant combinations with a heavy emphasis on winter interest plants. Many visitors didn’t know how to interpret the garden at first sight. Aside from so many plants being totally unfamiliar, John never wanted flowers… the thing most gardeners think should be the primary feature… to be the star. His famous saying to the pansy and petunia crowd was “…if you want flowers, go to Walmart”! But flowers there were, but they were merely the icing on the cake… and were selected for their cryptic forms that were more intriguing than simply a splash of color.

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Quercus glauca at The John Fairey Garden

John’s artistic interests were varied… between teaching design to architecture students at Texas A&M University to his own painting studio he used to have in Houston, he also collected exceptional pieces of Mexican folk art in his travels south of the border, along with a significant collection of Pre-Columbian art. With an amazing gallery situated next to his architecturally modern house integrated wonderfully with the garden, he surprised everyone several years ago when he transferred his entire Mexican folk art collection to The Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont, where it is now among their permanent collections. Faced with an empty gallery, John started going to Mexico again to procure pieces to fill the gallery once more… something he did until this past winter, even with failing health.

John Fairey
John Fairey

I was honored to have been director of John’s garden when it transitioned from private to public, with assistance from The Garden Conservancy… up until the point where I had to make the difficult decision to leave last October. Though I always wished I could have been involved during the heyday of the Peckerwood/Yucca Do plant exploration, I got to absorb so much excitement and knowledge when John would relive his journeys during our regular talks on his porch...and often with many of you reading this who came from all over the world. If I asked him about a plant in the garden, he would go into all the colorful details of the circumstances leading up to finding it, remembering the companion plants, the geology, who was with him sharing the excitement. Hearing recollections about his times collecting with other luminary plantsmen of yesteryear I never got to meet like Lynn Lowrey, J.C. Raulston, and others allowed me to be transported back to the exciting times of discovery I was only privy to as a young plant nerd in Florida through the accounts in the eagerly anticipated Yucca Do Nursery catalogs. He would remember all the vivid details of those trips even in recent days.

Though I use the Peckerwood Garden name here, I should mention that the garden’s board of directors announced last week that they changed the garden’s name to The John Fairey Garden. If you don’t already, I hope you will support the continuation of the garden by becoming a member, volunteering, purchasing some exclusive offerings from their nursery, and simply visiting often, in all seasons, to fully appreciate John’s life’s masterpiece that is continually-evolving. The photo here, among one of my favorites with John, was taken by Ficus guru David Dewsnap during his visit several years ago when we were studying John’s specimen of Ficus tikoua and other hardy species in the garden.