When you really, truly, deeply love gardens you are inspired to share this love with all you meet. When your work in landscape design spans 40 years, while earning you and your landscaping firm 250 design awards, recognition from three US first ladies, (Johnson, Regan, and Carter) and every day you have ideas about what you would like to grow, why not make a garden as a gift to the land you love? Create the garden on land in the south, where your family has deep horticultural roots, where your grandmothers passed on their love of gardening to you. Seriously, why not?
Meet Jim Gibbs of Gibbs Gardens, located in the foothills of Mt. Oglethorpe, in north Georgia. This garden rivals the beauty of Butchart, Sissinghurst, and Monticello. This is a destination pleasure garden designed and developed over 30 years by a master of landscape art. If you haven’t heard of it yet it isn’t because you aren’t paying attention. It has only been open to the public since 2012.
But now that you know, all you have to do is decide when you want to visit. You might want to go in early spring for the daffodil festival when 20 million daffodils of 60 varieties open between March 1 and April 8. If you don’t make it then, the spring lingers with cherry blossoms, Dogwood, and the leafing out of 2000 Japanese maple trees.
The garden is known for the mass color spectacular of annuals. On my first visit here, the color scheme was orange, blue, and yellow with pansies as the dominant flower. The long entry was filled with hanging planters along the railing, overflowing with pansies and the blooms repeated in containers and in ground beds.
You enter the Valley Gardens through an allée of 120 red sunset maples emerging at the end to view the first of 24 ponds. From there, the views open up for the valley gardens. Even in summer, you will walk under a canopy of shade alongside ponds and cooling waterfalls.
This garden is uniquely beautiful precisely because of the location and topography of the land. Jim looked for six years to find the property that would allow him to design a garden that would provide the visitor with a feeling of “walking through a flower arrangement.” (website) There would be beauty above you, below you, and around you.
The mature forest provides the highest canopy, with natural streams directed through the grounds. The understory of the Japanese maples provides vibrant color spring, summer, and fall.
The Manor house garden is set on a hill and surrounded by seven levels of terraced gardens designed to be wandered through as you gradually ascend the 150 foot (46m) rise. Pale pink roses climb up the long arbor establishing the entrance to these gardens.
Patio, pool and conservatory spaces repeat the mass planting in coordinating colors. Each view here is carefully designed to delight your eye. This is the Gibbs family home, it conveniently allows Jim to continue to fine tune his garden and certainly enjoy the beauty he has created.
Years ago after an apprenticeship in Japan to study the art of Japanese Design, he resolved to build his own Japanese Garden. He thought big and built a 40 acre Japanese Garden, said to be the largest in the US, with a collection of stone lanterns and buddhas varying in style from the grand to the whimsical. He has written that finding the perfect boulders for his gardens was a five-year search over five countries.
If you can’t visit in the spring, consider the Waterlily festival in late September. The waterlily collection is planted in five ponds with 140 varieties of leaf shapes and blooms. Autumn, mid-October into November, is a kaleidoscope of color to enjoy the changing colors of the Japanese Maples and the forest canopy.
The only time you can’t visit is from mid-December to March 1 when the gardens are closed. But any other time there will be beauty enough to immerse yourself in this garden.
There is a space in this garden called, “The Pleasance” designed to mimic an open space in nature. Today we crave open space to escape a crowded urban environment, but in the early days of settling the country open space had to be created, cut out of the thick forest, to provide a view of the sky. The Pleasance was a feature of estate gardens and “is a destination to amuse, enjoy nature, read a book, gather with others or be alone to write a letter.” (website) Birdwatching is also a popular activity here as you sit on one of the many wooden benches provided, encouraging you to stay and linger. (the garden has no cell service, bad for trying to meet up with others, grand for escaping for a few hours)
I’ve made it back for a second visit to see the waves of daffodils sweeping across the land under the trees. I’m coming back to see the garden in the fall. Spread the word, this is a grand garden, this is an emotional experience of nature, this is a gift to all who love gardens. Don’t miss it.
P.S. In the profile of Jim Gibbs on his Garden’s website, there is the story of his family influence: “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 truckload of horse manure.”