The glory of Gibbs Gardens

A tree-lined parking lot is made ready for guests.

By Anita Rosen
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Photos by Daniel Rosen
Arguably the biggest thing to happen along Yellow Creek Road since the gold mines closed 100 years ago will occur this month with the opening of Gibbs Gardens. Among its 16 separate venues, guests will enjoy the largest fernery, Japanese garden and display of daffodils in the United States. Tiers of flowers draw the eye upward to the Manor House which sits 150 feet above the Valley Garden. Hydrangeas—160 varieties—bloom in succession and blend with rhododendrons to create a backdrop for both perennials and annuals.

But the land looked very different thirty years ago.

Plans and dreams
Crystalline water and autumn flora combine to blur the edges of reality as light filters through the trees along curved paths leading to the many bridges in Gibbs Gardens.
In 1980, purchasing the Yellow Creek Road property culminated a long search by Jim Gibbs for a site of at least 250 acres with abundant water, a mature forest and rolling hills. Gibbs’ imagination had been fired up after a visit to Gravetye Manor, just outside London. The gardens at Gravetye were created by William Robinson who, in the late 1800s, introduced England to a relaxed gardening style that made extensive use of native plants.

Armed with a degree from UGA in horticulture, his own well-respected landscape company in Atlanta and some incredible family genes, Gibbs set a goal of completing ten acres a year at his property.

The gardens would have a triangular form. A Manor House would be the top point and the two bottom angles would be moored by distinctive gardens. The Cherokee County site offered a nice elevation for the house and, with plentiful springs below, Gibbs found his perfect triangle. One lower angle, now the Japanese Garden, offered a fern dell and hardwoods. The other angle, more open and sunny, became home to the 140 water lilies in the replica Monet garden. With these anchors in place, Gibbs layered in the other venues in much the same manner that a floral arrangement is created . . . just bigger!

Japanese Garden
During a trip to Japan in 1973, Gibbs worked with a master gardener creating a traditional garden outside Tokyo. Here he learned not to force a design on the land; rather, careful study of a site’s natural attributes would reveal the placement of the three essentials of a Japanese garden - water, stones and plants.

In creating his Japanese Garden, Gibbs turned to David A. Slawson’s Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens: Design Principles, Aesthetic Values (Kodansha International, 1987). The water elements—seven spring-fed ponds—were first positioned, providing a delightful visual and auditory backdrop.

Using Slawson’s sketches, Gibbs initially found his second element, the stones, in Cartersville. But upon moving them to the garden, their iron ore content made them visually unacceptable. To blend with the trees, the rocks would have to be a granite-limestone mix. Exhibiting Herculean patience and a passion for perfection, Gibbs searched five neighboring counties before locating the appropriate rocks. Mindful of the reverence the Japanese confer on these stones, painstaking care was used in their placement; even a scratch renders the stone unusable.

To augment the flora on site, evergreens were added to give year-round structure and interest. As Gibbs says, this is a “garden of meditation that delights the senses and challenges the soul.”

A proper welcome
With the bucolic setting always the principal concern, final preparations to ready the Gardens for the public were made. Rough trails were replaced with paved or graveled roads. Parking lots were built to accommodate up to 1,000 cars. A Welcome Center with ticketing booth, information desk and gift shop was built. And, where there are people, there is a need for a café and, of course, rest rooms.

To meld the Welcome Center and the café with the landscape, mature plantings were moved using a mechanical tree spade. Operated by Patric Fisher of Native Tree, this spade opens 90 inches wide and digs down six feet in a conical shape, effortlessly slicing through Georgia red clay. Lining the spade accurately over the tree requires a good eye and hours of practice. Equally impressive is the process of gliding the tree gracefully into the prepared hole. Using this technique, 25-year-old trees can be moved with good survival success rates.

This Nellie R. Stevens holly moved from its 25-year-old home to a new position near the Welcome Center using the amazing 90” spade. The Nellie R. Stevens holly was moved with care and now resides next to the Welcome Center.

Restorative Beauty
The gates open on March 1 and visitors are welcome through November 30. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The season starts with the Daffodil Festival, opening day through April 15. Fifty acres of the flower memorialized by William Wordsworth will be on display. Visit the Gardens’ website, for more information.

Unlike a conventional botanical garden, this venue has been constructed to encourage visitors to proceed slowly and become an integral part of the landscape. Seating has been provided to allow time for reflection and observation.

Thirty-two bridge crossings over 24 spring-fed ponds delight the senses. Curved walkways beckon from one feature garden to the next with transitions often marked by huge swaths of roses.

As any gardener worth his soil knows, his work is never complete. But sometimes nature and man conspire to create a setting where their individual efforts meet in harmony. Jim Gibbs has spent over 30 years creating this 220-acre garden, starting with the search for just the right property. Lucky for us, he found it along Yellow Creek Road.

Timed to bloom over an eight-week period, 50 acres of daffodils will be on display March 1 through April 15 during the Daffodil Festival at Gibbs Gardens.

William Wordsworth (1804)

I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretch'd in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.



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