In the crisp, early fall air last Tuesday, sunlight gleamed through the sculptural agaves, cacti and palms in the arid beds of the John Fairey Garden about an hour northwest of Houston. Dappled shade lit up the green understory near the spring-fed creek of the property’s woodland.
But the brightest thing around that morning seemed to be the future of the garden itself.
Founder John Fairey started his magnum opus, originally called Peckerwood, nearly 50 years ago as his private retreat; eventually building a collection focused on the conservation of about 3,000 rare or unusual plants from Mexico, Texas and Asia, all suited to our region’s climate. By the time Fairey died last March, at the age of 89, the garden had grown to 39 acres, including a nursery.
Although close to the Waller County Fairgrounds, the place remains a bit of a hidden gem, relatively unknown to millions of people who live within 70 miles yet legendary among plant people as one of the great outdoor environments of the world.
That may be changing. The nonprofit garden’s board recently hired an executive director, its first in several years. They had set out to replace a horticulture director who departed last year, then decided to stabilize the organization first. The group’s president, Houston artist and marketing consultant Randy Twaddle, got the job.
The John Fairey Garden
When: Open Day tours 9 a.m., 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. Oct. 10, 17, 24 and Nov. 7, 14, 21; tours by appointment 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; nursery open after Open Day tours and weekdays by appointment.
Where: 20559 FM 359, Hempstead
Details: Tours $10-$15; memberships $25-$70; 979-826-3232; jfgarden.org
“I don’t think there’s any other public garden in the country where I’m qualified to be the executive director. It remains to be seen if I’m qualified to do it here,” Twaddle said, matter-of-factly. “But because John was an artist, I’m comfortable from that perspective.”
Marketing a masterpiece
Hiring a horticulture director remains a priority for next year, but marketing experience was what the garden needed most first. “We needed somebody who’s just thinking about the place every day,” Twaddle said, shivering in a linen jacket as we sat on the porch of the founder’s home, where he now lives.
Followers of the garden’s Instagram account already can see how the garden is inspiring Twaddle creatively. His abstract art has been fueled in the past by images of tangled urban power lines. Now he’s seeing organic lines everywhere he looks, in the magnificent plants and the shadows they cast on colorful stucco walls. Not that he’s there to make visual art.
Newly energized since he took the reins in May, the organization has grown its memberships by 65 percent, launched a new website that’s attracting more visitors and organized an annual fundraiser that looks like it will exceed its goal, offering donors a film about Fairey that premieres Oct. 20. The John Fairey Garden now produces a monthly newsletter, tracks the numbers of visitors and is building better relationships with area chambers of commerce and tourism agencies.
One of Fairey’s last acts was commissioning an 8-by-24-foot mural for a wall near the garden’s nursery by Dixie Friend Gay, a Houston artist known for her realistic and intricate mosaics of nature scenes. Twaddle hopes the mosaic will be completed by next spring, along with a small, arched bridge by the Houston firm Metalab that will improve access from the woodlands to the dry north garden.
On HoustonChronicle.com: An artist’s eye, a conservationist’s heart
People often call Fairey an artist. Indeed, he earned an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with the great painters Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell and Clyfford Still. But he built his career as a professor of architecture at Texas A&M University, where he taught for 49 years. His real art was the design of the great garden, which he sometimes referred to as a painting.
Twaddle likens the garden now to a founder-driven museum. “Houston Botanic Garden is the MFAH. We’re the Menil,” he said. “That’s where we are now, transitioning from a founder-driven organization to sustaining and maintaining the legacy he built.”
Some of the garden’s low-key nature, in the beginning, was by design. Fairey welcomed visitors but wasn’t really set up to accommodate them until 1998, when the national Garden Conservancy stepped in to help preserve the property and enabled local supporters to organize sporadic open days.
Tours are still led by volunteer docents, by appointment on weekdays and on select Saturday public Open Days. (The fall schedule includes six Saturdays across October and November.) “One of the bigger long-term challenges is creating a way for people to do self-guided tours,” Twaddle said. “I have enjoyed incredible, intimate moments that you can’t have on a tour.”
Twaddle wants to bring more activities to the garden, too. When the pandemic recedes, he’d like to host festivals on the property and stage exhibitions in a now-empty gallery space. Fairey collected Mexican folk art that was never shared with garden visitors in the past and now belongs to the Art Museum of Southeast Texas. Twaddle could borrow some of it back for a show. He also envisions an exhibit about a class Fairey taught called “Imagination and Form.”
Half of the garden — the 20 acres Fairey planted with his collections — is preserved for perpetuity and can’t be changed without approval from the Garden Conservancy. Of course, plants aren’t static: They grow and sometimes die. Twaddle and the board’s planting and design subcommittee walk the paths every Monday to assess the constantly evolving needs.
“John introduced a lot of regional plants into the palette here, primarily from Mexico. The challenge now is, where do the new ones come from?” Twaddle said.
His to-do list is always growing. “We have to formalize the plant collection policy, especially now that John’s not here. Same thing with the maintenance of the garden,” he said. “There are plants that require some decisions. The good news there is that John did not have any interest in preserving this garden in amber. That’s in our DNA, to experiment. Our charge is to do that in a way that’s consistent with how John might have experimented.
“John was a really thoughtful guy,” he said. “There’s so much.”