Thirty years ago I came to Texas to teach first-year design in the school of Architecture at Texas A&M University and in 1971 purchased the land that forms the nucleus of my garden. The site with its clear, spring-fed brook reminded me of "magical places" in South Carolina where I grew up and what began innocently, as a pursuit of a sense of place, fast evolved into a passion. This enthusiasm continues unchecked, and the garden is still evolving on a site that has grown to almost 40 acres and abounds with new projects and purpose.
There are many ways to describe Peckerwood Garden: it 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. Yet, most essential, it is my studio, a place where artistic and horticultural research are fused to create an environment that stimulates all of the senses, including the most elusive of all, our sense of time. My background and education as a painter have trained me to see the garden as an ever-changing interaction of texture, color, rhythm, and space; it is a series of rooms constructed with a wide variety of plant material in which trees, shrubs, light, shade, paths, steps, and water create and balance the composition...spaces created are arranged so that when walking, one catches glimpses of other spaces; there is not a beginning or ending but a progressive journey of discovery.
A tornado destroyed the high canopy of giant, old trees in 1983. In hindsight, the devastation provided the opportunity to explore new directions in the garden that better reflected my ideas about space and to investigate and experiment with new plant material. At this time I was joined in this enterprise by Carl Schoenfeld, and we started researching native plants and their Mexican and Asian counterparts in the garden. The constant pursuit of new plants for the garden design has kept us aware of the need to evolve the garden continuously. With each addition and change, new problems arise to be solved, resulting in the evolution of the garden both visually and conceptually.
Renowned plantsman and native plant explorer, Lynn Lowrey (whose death was a keenly felt loss) introduced me to my first Texas native plant and for 25 years lent me his support and knowledge. It was Lynn who in 1988 invited us to join him on a botanizing trip in the mountains of northern Mexico.
Now veterans of about 100 expeditions to diverse remote regions of Mexico, we are striving to document and conserve a rapidly vanishing uncatalogued matrix of beautiful and uniquely diversified Mexican plants.
Our goal is to provide a cultural bridge between Mexico and the United States and, we hope, raise awareness on both sides of the border about the richness of this horticultural trove and the threat of its irrevocable loss due to overgrazing and other growing economic pressures. We feel strongly about conservation work. In order for these extraordinary plants to be fully appreciated, they must be brought to the attention of the public.
The best way to achieve this is to share plant material and information with other public institutions. Germplasm collected from these Mexican expeditions as well as the results of plant testing in the garden were shared with arboreta and interested plant societies. In the early 1990's, Doctor J.C. Raulston, Director, North Carolina State Arboretum (now J.C. Raulston Arboretum) distributed in one year alone over 9,000 plants grown from seed that we shared with him. The best of these plants are beginning to make their way into the nursery trade and individual gardens. The urgency value of the Mexican plant exploration has been a major factor in motivating me to donate my garden to the people of Texas. It is the beginning of a new level of sharing, both the garden and its new plants, with an ever wider constituency. Energy can now be directed to plant research in collaboration with an expanded group of participating institutions. In this way, I hope, the garden and the program to seek out and test new plants will continue into the next century. In this world of overemphasized technology in which values are often based on the superficial, gardens are a must for the public. They reacquaint us with the natural world, with our individual and shared past; they bring healing, literally and figuratively, to many of our ills.