Renowned plant explorer John Fairey died in 2020 at age 89, leaving a legacy that includes a remarkable 39-acre public garden with more than 3,000 trees and plants, many of them rare and endangered. Randy Twaddle is the executive director of The John Fairey Garden — located an hour northwest of Houston in Hempstead, 43 minutes from Round Top — and resides on the grounds in a house Fairey built in 2002.

“It’s like waking up in paradise,” Twaddle says. 

He first visited the garden in 2014 as the guest of a board member. “I couldn’t believe something like this existed, especially so close to Houston,” Twaddle says. “The scale of the garden and the beauty and variety was amazing. I couldn’t get over the fact that one guy had done all this.”

The visit was life changing. A well-known visual artist, Twaddle was invited to join the garden’s board a year later and eventually became its president. He moved to the garden full-time the summer after Fairey’s death, when much of Houston was still in pandemic lockdown.

“In some ways, it was a guilty luxury — having this time to myself to focus on the new job without distractions,” Twaddle says. “I spent a lot of time just walking around the garden to get to know it. John once said it took six years of living here to understand the garden, and I’m barely two years into it.” 

The courtyard gate was designed and made by architect and blacksmith Lars Stanley. Photography by Pär Bengtsson.

The backbone of the garden consists of more than 60 species of oak trees, many grown from seeds collected by Fairey in Mexico — some so rare they are not yet named by horticulturalists. There are also woodland gardens with camellias, azaleas and mock orange trees; an arboretum with rare Mexican magnolias; a conifer berm with pine trees and junipers; dry gardens with succulents such as agave and cactus; and a circle of giant palms. These living plant collections are carefully propagated, maintained, and displayed for educational purposes and help preserve rare, threatened, and unusual plants from the area. Many of these plants are available to buy through the garden’s nursery, and docent-led tours of the gardens are held regularly each month, when weather permits. 

While the garden is internationally renowned for the sheer size and scope of the collections, it’s also acclaimed for its original and sculptural design.

“John was an artist,” Twaddle says. “He approached the creation of the garden exactly the way one does traditional Western art making, with all the classical elements like repetition, contrast, texture, and the use of negative spaces. John was employing this with plants.”

In the West Woodland Garden, a vibrantly blooming Chinese witch hazel tree is native to Asia but flourishes in Texas.

Fairey trained as a painter — first at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and then at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, and David Smith. He left his native South Carolina in the 1960s to teach design at Texas A&M in College Station, settling down on seven hilly acres in nearby Hempstead in 1971. He recreated the Southern landscape from his youth, planting azaleas, camellias, and magnolias. Named Peckerwood — after the Texas plantation from the 1950s Auntie Mame movie and novel — the garden was renamed The John Fairey Garden after his death.

In the late ’80s, the Houston plant expert and nurseryman Lynn Lowrey introduced Fairey to native plants in Texas and Mexico, later taking him on a trip to the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains in northern Mexico to collect seeds and cuttings from rare and endangered plants. Carl Schoenfeld, a college student who worked at the gardens, joined them on the trip. It was the first of more than 100 botanical expeditions to Mexico that Fairey and Schoenfeld would make over the decades, and many of the plants and trees in the garden were grown from seeds they collected. 

Fairey helped raise conservation awareness on both sides of the border by sharing plant material and information with arboretums, plant societies, and universities. Eventually many plants made their way into the nursery trade and private gardens. In recognition of their achievements, Fairey and Schoenfeld were presented with the American Horticultural Award in 1996. Two years later, Fairey took his private garden public with the help of the prestigious New York-based Garden Conservancy, which assists with outreach and strategic planning. In 2015, the American Horticultural Society bestowed its highest honor on Fairey: the Liberty Hyde Bailey Award.

A footbridge over Dry Creek at John Fairey Garden was dedicated in 2021. The bridge was designed by Andrew Vrana, an architect and John Fairey’s former student.

A living thing, the garden is always evolving — and that’s a constant source of both fascination and frustration.

“We are charged with preserving the horticultural integrity of this place to the standards that John would want, but plants die and grow, they change,” Twaddle says. “The gardens are getting shadier all the time, which has consequences. Light was incredibly important to John in the design of the garden.”

Fairey planted in layers so that sunlight coming through plants and trees of various heights and sizes would create unexpected and beautiful effects. “Parts of the garden would be dappled with light, others in deep shadows, then just inches away the sun would be shining brightly,” highlighting a plant or area, Twaddle notes.

Fairey also used plants and trees to create architectural spaces, and some of those areas are also threatened by lack of sun. Twaddle and his team are outlining a management plan to address such issues. They’re also inviting experts who worked with Fairey to walk the gardens and suggest solutions in line with Fairey’s original wishes.

“There’s no straightforward answer for any of these questions,” Twaddle says. “That’s why it’s so difficult, and one of the reasons we need to be diligent in trying to understand John’s intentions, to use that as the baseline.

“At the end of the day, What would John do?”