“Rosemary Verey gave me the seed for those thistles,”  he said, wheeling on me censoriously.  “Do you know who that is?”

I did and said so, but he still looked as if he had no confidence in the scope of my gardening knowledge, or indeed, my intellect or taste whatsoever

Of course, a bit of self-seriousness can be forgiven in a 60-something man recovering however beautifully from a recent stroke.  I was there with my friend Julia, who loves Gainey.  Julia is the force who founded the Decatur Preservation Alliance and made her fair city start thinking about its architectural heritage.  She got to know Gainey when he proposed leaving his house and garden to her group. 

Rich, important, willing to build a monument to himself. 

What does the garden of such a man look like?


Adam and Eve in the Garden of Ryan

Delightful, naturally.  Gainey is a real gardener.  His place is playful, experimental, humble.

Oh yes, there is stonework the likes of which obscure gardeners could never afford, including a beautiful terrace behind his house with a sunburst pattern.  There are garden rooms separated by stone walls and sculptural boxwoods in fighting trim.  There are urns and outbuildings and long views alternating rhythmically with leafy caves.

But the most striking thing about the garden is its delicious humor.  Gainey’s little pond is full of glass balls shaped like Christmas ornaments.  On the wall behind it are miniature niches in a classical vein.  Between them are ceramic frogs.

There are wonderful playful Haitian metal sculptures all over the garden.  Adam and Eves peep out of the jungly foliage.  There is even a rickety tree house.  A Model T sits in his carport, surrounded by colored lights.


Every gardener should have one of these in the driveway

And for a man whose house and yard will someday be owned by the Decatur Preservation Alliance to be maintained in perpetuity, Gainey seemed pretty clear about the evanescent nature of gardens and their beauty.  When Julia asked where something she’d admired had gone–an Italian Renaissance garden created in miniature, complete with villa, pools, and bonsai trees–he just shrugged.

“Oh that,” he said, “I got bored with that and took it down.”

A little later, he told me that Bunny Williams had published pictures of his garden way back in the 1960’s.  “That kind of thing shouldn’t be allowed.”  What he meant was, he was not the kind of person who ought to be frozen in stone.  He tried new things, made new forms of beauty as the mood struck.  Like all true gardeners, he’d never be done rearranging the plants.

Gainey led us out of the formal areas into a pleasantly messy lawn punctuated by willow trellises that held intertwined tomatoes and clematis.  In this spot, with alpine strawberries at his feet and shaggy fading poppies curving around us, he seemed to relax for a moment.

“My people were sharecroppers,” Gainey said, pulling a weed.  “They picked cotton for 15 cents an hour.”

Contradictions–they make for rich people, as well as rich gardens.

“Dig up a piece of amaranth,” he said to me before I left.  “Take a ripe thistle head.”

I did.  I’m still considering where in my yard to split the prickly thing open, but it does make me smile every time I pull it out of my purse.


  1. Mr. Gainey’s book, The Well-Placed Weed”, was one of the first books, perhaps the very first, that opened my eyes to the concept of garden whimsy.

  2. I had the pleasure of visiting Ryan’s garden in the early 80’s. It was the week before his annual garden tour (Mothers Day). I just had flown in from Dallas and his garden was the only thing I cared about seeing in Atlanta. He was working on it for the following weekend and so graciously let me just meander through it. He showed me all the bones he started with and what his plans were. That was the catalist that started me on my gardening adventure. He was a gracious host and so wonderfully delightful. I wanted so to peek into his home, but that was way too much to ask. I felt honored to get a personal tour and have devoured his book and video for the past 2 decades. Everytime I think I’ll pull something out, I’m reminded there are NO weeds, just plants out of place. So, that has made me stretch as a gardener and for the better, I think. I thank him profusely for his knowledge and willingness to share it. He was cutting edge then and probably still is the best mentor one could hope for. A must see garden.

  3. I’m trying to locate where to purchase ‘tomatoe booster mulch’ which I understand is a ‘red plastic’ to use rather than ‘black plastic’ around new tomatoe plants for higher yield and better quality. Can you help?

    Thank you

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