Inspiration sometimes gets an unexpected and vicious kickstart.
When the remnants of Tropical Storm Irma collided with Gibbs Gardens in September 2017, the storm wiped out a forested hillside of mature trees, leaving more than 50 huge root balls in its wake.
“I was in shock,” said garden owner/developer Jim Gibbs, describing his first view of the destruction. “By the next morning I had a plan to turn Irma’s mess into a grand new spring garden for our visitors, to extend color and spring blooms with amazing collections of Encore and native azaleas.”
Three years later Gibb’s plan is reality. Part 1, 7.5 acres of his 15-acre Inspiration Garden opened in April. “It’s the most difficult garden I’ve ever built—and the most expensive,” he told Smoke Signals during a June interview. “I’ve always wanted to design and build a garden with plant collections that will inspire and educate our visitors. The Inspiration Garden is large but we’ve created all these small intimate spaces with the hope of inspiring ideas for home gardens.”
“Much work happens before the first spade hits the soil—especially in this garden,” Gibbs added. “Our work has been filled with challenges beginning with the cleanup in 2017. We had to remove all the downed trees and collateral mess before we could see what kind of space we would have left to work with.”
The previously forested area—about 15 acres—now has some spaces with full sun, others a mix of sun and shade, others in full shade. “We took out some additional undesirable trees to create ‘skylights’ to let sun in,” he added.
“At the time, I envisioned a spring garden—now named the Inspiration Garden—in the space. A four-season garden with beautiful colors, even in the wintertime when everything else is bleak and all the leaves have dropped off the trees,” he said. “It takes a lot of different but complimentary plantings to have four-season color, blooms and texture.” Gibbs combined elements of several plantings that each add their own unique character to the new garden: A conifer garden with all the blue-gray, grays, greens and chartreuse colors. Collections of dwarf ginkgo, 100 rare dissectum laceleaf Japanese maples, palmatum—a larger Japanese maple—now with over 135 new ones in this garden. To complete his vision, Gibbs added rhododendrons, hydrangeas, bulbs, annuals and perennials mixed with an assortment of flowering trees to add colorful blooms from April 1 to August 1.
The planning and implementing part of creating the Inspiration Gardens was filled with challenges. Gibbs Gardens is carved out of 336 acres of forested hillsides. The location for the Inspiration Garden is a very steep hillside with a tremendous amount of elevation change. From the Valley Gardens to the Manor House there’s 150 feet of elevation and many places in the new garden have 70-75 feet of elevation along with vast open space from Irma’s furor
Before the area was cleared of dead trees, Gibbs was analyzing the topography to determine the best traffic flow through what would become this future garden.
“How are people best able to meander and really enjoy a beautiful space? That’s the first consideration,” he said. “The walkways are what guide visitors through the garden; they provide the perspective or angle of the view. Our walkways follow the topography, which ensures more gentle level paths for visitors,” Gibbs explained. Because of the elevation Gibbs added handrails throughout the garden to add to visitors’ comfort.
“We had to put together a water management plan to prevent soil erosion and to ‘steer’ the flow of run-off water from heavy rains for 150 feet from the Manor House—one of the highest points in Northeast Cherokee County—down to streams in the Valley Gardens.
Water management includes making sure that irrigation effectively reaches all of the plantings no matter where they are in the garden.
On the plus side, Gibbs noted, hilly topography increases the range of visibility. His plan included taking advantage of the hillside to add character through boulders and viewing decks with arbors for shade.
“The colors, shading and shapes of the huge boulders are as interesting as plants. We have to dig holes to set these huge boulders in so they look like a natural part of the landscape. Smaller plants set near the boulders ‘soften’ the stones.”
This hillside was so hilly, he knew it was going to be a difficult task. To complete those walkways and craft gentle slopes he needed a lot of dirt.
“More than 300 truckloads (1800 cubic yards of fill dirt) were brought in to soften the steep hillsides, create walkways and provide a base to plant on the vertical slope,” he said. If the pathways aren’t correct then it becomes an uncomfortable garden for visitors to navigate. It’s very hard to go back and change that later.
“Boulders—up to two tons each—were strapped down and transported on flatbed trucks to visually anchor the pathways.” Tons of smaller rocks were used to form channels to move rain water down the hills to creeks and streams that run through the gardens and empty into the Hollis Lathem Reservoir.
What Plants Go Where?
The fun part—picking out plants—can also become the tricky part. There’s just a lot to consider: sun/shade needs, form, colors, textures, size and hardiness.
“As soon as the walkways are in place, I look at the site from all directions to determine which plants should go in each of those areas. But it all depends on the sun/shade requirements,” he said.
“If a plant needs full sun, that means it should have six hours or more of sun per day. If the plant needs part sun it should have four to six hours of sun. But if the plant needs part shade, it needs to be planted where it will receive no more than four hours of morning sun—not the hot afternoon sun.”
Because Gibbs Gardens is located in zone seven Gibbs only uses plants that grow and thrive in that zone.
“I always advise home gardeners to check out the websites of plants they are considering for their yards. If plants aren’t hardy in your zone they aren’t going to thrive. Likely they will lose them.”
The Inspiration Garden today is a treasure, bejeweled with beautiful flowering plants: more than 1500 evergreen Encore azaleas in all 33 varieties, 1200 native azaleas of over 100 varieties. Gibbs added a collection of rare and unusual dwarf Japanese maples, a dwarf ginkgo collection and 200 varieties of dwarf conifers. Then, to add spring, summer and fall color, he planted the Drift Rose series—all dwarf and low maintenance—plus the Knockout Rose series. At key high points he added viewing decks with arbors where visitors can enjoy the broad views of the Inspiration Garden as it gracefully unfurls its beauty and colors across the hillside, down to the valley. The viewing platforms are a great place to take photos—or notes filled with ideas for home gardens.
A Surprising Fact
The most amazing part of the Jim Gibbs entire planning/implementation process is what isn’t used. There’s no fancy digital engineering software program, no rolls of blueprints, no fancy engineer’s schematics.
Gibbs does it all: the vision, planning and implementing—even solving the challenges—in his head. “I walk the land,” Gibbs explained, “after 40 years, I know it well.”
Armed with a handful of small colored flags attached to pieces of wire, he leaves markers for his crew—most have been with him for more than 30 years and understand his flag “language.” One set of flags marks where something needs to be taken out, other colors—assigned to different plant types—indicate planting sites. Simple but it works.
There’s an intangible bond between Gibbs and his land that inspires his creativity and instills his hope that the gardens he creates will bring joy, peace and serenity to all who view them.
Reprinted with permission from Smoke Signals.
Photos by Paul Sayegh