A Toyota sedan idled on a gravel mountain road in Ball Ground and the driver told the passenger to roll down a window for a better look.
Even without the filter of glass, there was no justice in the snapshot view. So both people got out of the car, trudged up a rain-slicked hill in the late February chill and gazed forward. In the distance, it was as though the horizon had been flipped. Above, the overcast sky was like a winter landscape, a cold, hard, gray menace. Below, the earth glowed like pale sunshine, tender and rambling without end.
“I have the invoices for 1,350,000 of them, 60 different varieties,” said Jim Gibbs, as he looked out across the 50 acres of budding daffodils rushing through the foothills of Mount Oglethorpe.
The only reason he doesn’t have receipts for the other several million daffodils is because each year the plants double on their own. On top of that, Gibbs plants a few thousand more bulbs each year, as he has for the past 20 years. Even the American Daffodil Society believes this is the largest display in the nation.
It’s just one radiant portion of Gibbs’ 300 acre landmark, Gibbs’ Gardens, a formerly private estate which he opened to the public this month. Garden clubs, horticulture experts and a privileged few have had some access to the private garden for the nearly 30 years Gibbs has been developing 220 acres of it. Vince Dooley, who became a gardening enthusiast and author after his storied career as the University of Georgia’s football coach, has called it one of “Georgia’s hidden jewels.” He’s one of the relative few who have had access to the garden for years.
A landscape architect by training and founder of Atlanta’s Gibbs’ Landscaping Co., which restored the gardens at the governor’s mansion under Gov. Joe Frank Harris, Gibbs set out in 1980 to build a world-class garden that would approach the magnificence of the nation’s great destination gardens. To achieve it, he put most, if not all, of his passion and a significant portion of his fortune into the Cherokee County earth, an hour north of Atlanta.
And early reviews from a handful of the nation’s top horticulturalists and arborists suggest that Gibbs, one of the founding members of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, has gone a long way in making, “a masterpiece that will mature into one of the nation’s great gardens,” said Michael Dirr, a retired UGA professor and author recognized as one of the nation’s leading horticulture experts.
“One man or woman with vision and the deciding vote wins the prize in garden making,” Dirr said in an email interview. “Thinking about the great gardens of England, particularly Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, Hidecote, all were created by individuals with passion, resolve, love of plants and often a respectable checkbook. Jim has all of these attributes. He saw the future before there was one.”
A legacy of gardening
At 69, Gibbs is a husband, father of three and grandfather of 11, who’s from an era when polite men ordered for their wives at restaurants. He retired a while back from the company he founded. But now, even in casual conversation there’s something in his easy, even warm, baritone that still has boardroom firmness. True even when he’s ordering the foreman of his 10-man crew to complete a foot bridge to the new visitors’ center by week’s end.
But you suspect there must be an ego here. A huge one. There must be. There has to be. Because how many people decide — I’m going to build a massive garden with waterfalls, 30 ponds, thousands of water lilies, Japanese maples, azaleas, crepe myrtles, birch and cherry trees, roses, hydrangeas, day lilies, forsythia, quince, dogwoods, ferns, trillium, a formal Japanese garden and a replica of a moment in Monet’s Giverny garden complete with an exact replica of the iconic arched teal bridge draped in wisteria — then set about doing it?
You could say he came by it honestly. His mother was a blue ribbon gardener from South Carolina who won so much she was barred from competing and became a judge. His grandmothers were gardeners as well, in Georgia and South Carolina, who taught him how to coax a yield from the land; for a Christmas gift one year, one of his grandmothers asked for and received a truck load of horse manure.
“The flowers she grew with it you would not believe,” Gibbs said.
So no one balked when he majored in landscape architecture at UGA or opened his landscaping business or when he helped the fledgling Atlanta Botanical Garden get off the ground when it was no more than a slip of land with a double-wide trailer on it. Through his career he was honored for the work by the wives of three presidents: Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
Yet when he started talking about building a legacy garden of his own, some thought he was guilty of overreach.
“I was one of them,” said Sally, his wife of 48 years. “He came home one day, it was around Christmas and said, ‘I need to write a check for’ whatever the amount was. And I said, ‘Oh no, what have you bought?’ I didn’t realize he was planning something this big.”
‘Great design eye’
He spent six years searching for property that met four criteria: abundant natural streams, “because they were predicting even back then that Atlanta would have water shortages and I didn’t want to dig any wells,” he said; a mature forest to give the grounds natural majesty; rolling topography so that flowers would be above as well as below a visitor, so it would feel as though they were walking through a flower arrangement; and all of this in a setting between I-575 and Ga. 400, (“They were already calling this the platinum triangle,” he said). By his wager, the whole thing would be done in less than 20 years. That was back in 1980.
First up on the property was a Tudor-style mansion with a series of small gardens surrounding it that felt like outdoor rooms.
By 1986 that first garden, with its long, rose-draped arbor, had made the cover of Southern Living magazine.
“Horticulturalists are plant geeks who get worked up about individual plants, and landscape architects plant in masses with the same plant over and over,” said Stephen Bender, a senior writer at Southern Living who has written about gardens for 29 years.
“What makes him extraordinary is that he’s a plant geek with a really great design eye. His garden has all these rolling hills that makes it a three-dimensional experience, where he puts color at eye level so you’re not just looking down at your feet all the time.”
Going by the book, Gibbs’ Gardens isn’t a botanical garden where every plant is labeled. With its 10 miles of walking and running paths, its creator calls it a pleasure garden. But money alone doesn’t create an epic garden in the beginning, though it is necessary for longevity. Neither must it have premium plants.
The public gardens that truly last must have a strong educational component and a solid idea of what they mean to convey through their planting and programs, said Bill Noble, director of preservation for the Garden Conservancy. It’s a national organization that works to preserve historic gardens, such as Pearl Fryar’s topiary garden in Bishopville, S.C.
That garden began as an after-work hobby for an African-American can factory worker in a working class neighborhood. Fryar salvaged shrubs thrown away by nurseries, planted them on his 3-acre plot and taught himself to sculpt them with electric hedge clippers into wildly geometric and organic shapes, some three-stories tall. His garden is recognized as one of the most significant in the world and has been the subject of a 2006 documentary, “A Man Named Pearl.”
Elizabeth Clarkson and Elizabeth Lawrence’s garden on a small city lot in Charlotte, N.C., also accomplishes something a strong public garden ought to: it’s a standout example of a genre. The two neighbors created what’s now noted as one of the best expressions of heirloom Southern gardening.
“What’s interesting about them is that they display a scope and say something about horticulture and design as part of the historic experience of a region,” Noble said. “Those are the gardens that last.”
While there are tours of Gibb’s property, he hasn’t developed educational programming for students, though there’s talk of an internship project. And while many of the plants are native to the region, including a lush, nearly mile-long fern bog original to the property, he has imported ideas from other countries, specifically Japan.
Even more than the daffodil display, he is most proud of the Japanese garden. He began studying the style in the 1970s, while designing and installing the Japanese-style gardens of Dorothy Fuqua, for which the Fuqua Orchid Conservatory is named at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. An apprenticeship in Japan convinced him to build his own someday. Someday is now. Earthen bridges, pagodas, juniper bonsai that he pruned himself and sacred stone formations surround the streams and ponds. Birch trees are alive with the song of robins.
“It took me five years searching five counties for these rocks,” Gibbs said, as he explained the meaning of each lichen-covered boulder.
Last spring Dooley, Dirr and Bender toured the daffodil display. Bender turned what he saw into a feature for the February issue of his magazine this year.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Dooley said.
Dirr was equally enthralled.
“In a lifetime of loving gardens, I’ve never seen [any] thing more spectacular,” Dirr wrote in an email. “Their sheer numbers boggle the mind.”
Gibbs has 80 acres he hasn’t touched. There are plans for a moss sanctuary, maybe more garden rooms. The estate has been put in a family trust so that it is preserved for generations, he said. For now, he’s just trying to get through his first official season opener.
Since it welcomed its first guests on March 1, there have already been visitors from as far away as Australia, such as the couple from Sydney who came specifically to see the daffodils.
They were also Gibbs’ mother’s favorite flower. Before she died at 95, she saw them on her son’s property when they numbered only a few hundred thousand. Right about now, the last flourish of the season has started to bloom, the most fragrant yellow blossoms of all. Their scent will lace the mountain air until just before April.
By then, white and pink petals of thousands of cherry and dogwood trees will be reaching en masse toward a bright blue sky.
1998 Gibbs Drive, Ball Ground
770-893-1880 or www .gibbsgardens .com
●Wednesdays, group tours only (minimum 10 people).
● 9:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays.
● Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Adults, $20; $18 for seniors 65 and older and children 4-17. (Ages 3 and under, free.)
Family rate, $75 (two adults, two children).
It takes about an hour from Atlanta to Ball Ground. For directions, visit the website.
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