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Intown Eden

Decatur's not-so-secret garden

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Less than a mile from downtown Decatur and safely hidden out of view from nearby Ponce de Leon Avenue, Ryan Gainey has handcrafted his own two-acre floral sanctuary. White hydrangeas are the order of the day and in the delicate morning sunlight his garden paints a picturesque setting for a play like Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. One can almost sense Puck hiding in the foliage.

Gainey sits on his back porch with a rambunctious band of beagles by his side. "To me, that's the passion behind everything that I do – to create a sense of beauty," he says, reminiscing about his gardening inspiration. He has unquestionably succeeded in bringing an abundance of beauty to his property and plenty of people have taken notice. Not only does his garden bring in visitors from across the country, but Gainey also has been able to make a living from what he does best. His business, Ryan Gainey & Company, designs public and private gardens nationwide, and Gainey continuously leaves an impression on the people he works with, from our Peach State all the way to California. "Once I become involved with someone, I awaken in them the same passion [for gardening] that I have inside myself," he says. "It becomes their life."

How and when did you get started gardening?

I grew up in [an] agrarian family in South Carolina. Probably the first work I ever did had to do with farming – which was basically picking cotton all day long. Within my neighborhood there were three ladies appropriately named Ms. Flower, Ms. Faile and Ms. Floyd. I developed this insatiable interest in flowers from them. They taught me all about horticulture, how to propagate plants, how to root camellias under the eve of a barn beneath a Mason jar and how to divide plants. In 1955, my family built the first and only house that we ever owned. We had a vacant lot next to us. I had graduated from high school and I went to Clemson to study horticulture. So when I would come home [from college], I would keep clearing the land because I was going to make my own garden [in the vacant lot].

What attracted you to Decatur?

I came to Decatur because this [property] was a family-owned business. All of these garden rooms down below were glass greenhouses at one time. One of the sons that was raised in this house used to peddle plants. He would bring old-fashioned jade plants and other things that were flowering up to the shop where I was working. I was intrigued by [the plants] and I told him that I wanted to see all that he had, not just what he brought me – I wanted to see everything. So I started coming over here and eventually bought [the property].

What was the inspiration for your garden?

It's to create beauty. Secondary to that, it's not only to create beauty but also to provide a venue in which people can come and see beauty. It becomes a way that I can inspire and teach people. This garden has been open to the public over the years and has been in an enormous amount of fundraisers for the Decatur Arts Festival, the Decatur Preservation Alliance, and it's also been on the garden tour that benefits the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Next year it will be its 25th year. Mother's Day weekend this year we had 1,800 people here.

Is there a specific theme for your garden?

The garden is divided into five "rooms." All of the rooms have names: the Arbors, the Borders, the Temple Garden, the Visitors Garden and the Terrace. Basically, there is no plan. There never has been a plan. In fact, that's really true about all my work. I guess what it really amounts to is that I am a garden designer; actually, I think I am more of a garden evolutionary – as opposed to a visionary, because any true garden evolves. You read, you study, you travel and you go see what other people have done, just like anything else. For me it's become the implementation of a lifestyle.

What specific plants and flowers make up your garden?

I garden with both herbaceous plants and woody plants – whose gift to me is fragrance. I'm passionate about fragrance. This garden has something in bloom 12 months out of the year. It's great. My theory about the whole thing is if it can flower, be evergreen and be fragrant, then you should have it. So I'm passionate about fragrance and I'm passionate about plants that have colored foliage, as opposed to flowers. I love hydrangeas.

How much maintenance does your garden require?

Twenty-four hours a day – 12 hours of daylight working and 12 hours of sleeping and figuring out what I am going to do the next day. I'm not like most people. I go to bed at 8 o'clock and I get up at 5:30 in the morning.

How has the recent water restrictions and drought affected your garden?

It's really altered the way I think about the importance of certain plants. My focus is on finding drought-resistant plants that bloom as late as they can, which is why I have three or four chrysanthemums. I also have fall-blooming asters. You don't have to water them as much and you will have a beautiful garden in the fall.

Do you think gardening is therapeutic?

I can't imagine what anybody's life could be without having a garden. You know, a garden could be four big whiskey barrels sitting out on a balcony where you grow one tomato plant and some herbs for cooking. Or, if you feel like it, put out flowers and mix them all together. What's going on economically and politically and all this stuff that goes on in the world – all that is because people have lost their grip on their agrarian culture.

What advice would you give to someone with no green thumb who would like to bring a little gardening into his or her life?

First of all you need to develop a sense of success. That way you get over what you're intimidated by. And why not just go get a whiskey barrel and grow something in it on a terrace or on a balcony or on a deck? Once a human being becomes successful at something, that's when it really starts to grow. Then they'll venture out into other things. After that I think what really awakens the passion for gardening is growing things from seed – it is the easiest thing in the world. Buy a 79-cent package of seed and spread it in a pot, cover it according to whatever the instructions are and watch it grow.

Besides your own, what other garden or natural spot in Atlanta is your favorite?

That would be hard to say. That would be like asking me who I loved more than I loved myself. I guess anyone could benefit from visiting the Atlanta Botanical Garden. It's certainly not my style, but I don't know what people are looking for. Other than having access to private gardens, where would you go? My whole point of conjecture is, if I have all of this, then why wouldn't I open it up to let people see it?

Ryan Gainey's garden is available to visit by appointment. For more information visit www.ryangainey.com.

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