Gibbs Gardens A Living Masterpiece

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Gibbs Gardens, an hour’s drive north of Atlanta, could be described as a botanical masterpiece. The Gardens represent a coalescence of expertise developed over a lifetime, affection that transcends generations, unfailing attention to detail, enduring patience, and rock-solid perseverance on the part of Jim Gibbs.

Mr. Gibbs’ passion for gardens goes back generations, and he is a firm believer in “gardening genes.” Both of his grandmothers were gardeners. His mother was a blue ribbon floral arranger who, along with her four sisters, were avid gardeners. The dimensions of his interests were further shaped and enriched by a great aunt whose gardens fascinated him in his early years. This rich family tradition and ingrained affection for the beauty and power of partnerships between people and plants led him to pursue a degree in horticulture with a minor in landscape architecture at The University of Georgia.

Soon after graduating, Gibbs Landscaping Company came onto the scene in Atlanta and became a leading presence. Since its beginning it has received more than 250 awards, including national awards presented at White House receptions. Jim Gibbs has also been intimately involved with the Atlanta Botanical Garden as a founding member and a lifetime trustee.

The idea of a lifetime trustee translates to the decades-long pursuit of his dream, implanted long ago, of creating a special place, a garden, or more, a system of gardens that would be a legacy for his family and an invitation to the public to share the beauty and wonder of nature’s world of plants.

As Jim Gibbs says,“Passing down seeds and plants from generation to generation provides a kind of love that only a gardener understands. I’m sure my three children and eleven grandchildren will enjoy this garden for years to come as I hope the general public will enjoy visiting and viewing the legacy I leave behind.”

In pursuit of his dream Jim Gibbs traveled for 15 years covering the nation and the world studying gardens of every style and sensitivity. He came away with many insights, two of them fundamental. First, that, “Classic gardens take a long time to create. They don’t happen overnight.” Secondly that, “Gardens are a blend of man and nature, a synthesis of soul and substance.” He knew that it would take him at least 30 years to turn his dream into reality. It took 32!

The first challenge became finding an ideal site. He describes his quest in this way, “I began the search to find land to build a world class garden in 1973 and in 1980 my dream came true when I found 300 acres nestled in the North Georgia mountains in Cherokee County, Georgia less than one hour from Atlanta.”

His essential requirements were a bountiful source of water and graceful mature trees covering a rolling topography. Perhaps in light of his mother’s experience and talent as a floral designer, Gibbs points out that, “In a quality floral arrangement topography is a prime consideration. Topography in the design must make each flower visible.” He applied the same principle to the far larger expanse of the gardens. Each feature, no matter its size, must be easily accessible to the eye.

The result opened to the public in 2012. Gibbs Gardens are a seamless quilt. Each of the sixteen gardens is distinct, yet each one flows gently into the whole. The complex includes three feature gardens: The Japanese Gardens, the Water Lily Gardens, and the Manor House Gardens. The Gibbs Gardens website describes the main gardens.

Japanese Gardens
The Japanese Hill and Pond Stroll garden, ‘Tsukiyama,’ is over 40 acres and the largest Japanese Garden in the nation. Visitors enter through a Torii Gate, a gate commonly found as the entrance to Shinto shrines representing the transition from the profane to the sacred. A meandering walk descends subtly around seven spring-fed ponds with islands, bridges, massive boulders and rocks. A natural stone bridge, a ‘Bridge to Heaven,’ connects an island to the shore.

Millions of existing ferns, native azalea, dogwood, mountain laurel, trilliums and wild flowers accompany masses of plantings including many 50-to 60-year-old plants used to bonsai. Yoshino and Kwanzan cherry trees blossom in spring as weeping willows reflect in the water.

Collections of stone Japanese lanterns, natural stones and Japanese Maples provide sculptural interest. Pagoda structures and a zigzag bridge add architectural interest.

Reflections of clouds, waterfalls, ripples, butterflies, birds, and fish provide movement in the garden. Impressive stones speak of stillness and serenity.

Waterlily Gardens
Five ponds showcase over 140 varieties of waterlilies in their natural environment—the largest natural display of waterlilies in the nation. Each pond originates from the flow of underground springs.

These selected varieties of varying size, shape and color are from world-renowned hybridizers. Meandering paths follow each of the Waterlily Gardens resembling radiating waves of a pebble tossed in a still pond.

Monet’s Garden at Giverny outside Paris delighted Mr. Gibbs. The bridge, with its rolled steel beams, rails and arbor, was carefully measured and reproduced in detail. Monet’s color choice was used and the wisteria-draped bridge casts dramatic shadows upon the water throughout the day.

Other highlights include wooden bridges, a covered bridge, a natural rock bridge, islands, waterfalls, a Japanese pagoda viewing deck and numerous benches.

Japanese Maples, thousands of daffodils, and other plants, provide additional seasonal interest in the Waterlily Gardens.

Manor House Gardens
Cascading layers of gardens and woodland embrace each side of the Manor House. The gardens, terraces, lawns, and undisturbed woodland, launch the eye to North Georgia mountain vistas and sky. The intrigue of Manor House Gardens begins with this view.

An iron gate near the front door beckons you along a path beside the house that winds gently to the top of the Manor House Gardens overlooking the house and the mountains. The path descends to the guesthouse where sounds of waterfalls lure you to a beautiful pool with colorful plantings. Latticed arches, including an arched opening to the right of the front door invite you to the stone terrace off the kitchen, dining and living rooms. This verandah is the heart of the house, garden and land.”

That sums up the main gardens, but let’s not forget the daffodils! Twenty million daffodils of hundreds of varieties bloom in spring. There are early, mid and late season selections. The season typically begins in March and continues through mid-April. Daffodils form a gentle unifying cradle of beauty and grace to the gardens.

Overall, the Gardens’ essence is framed by generations-long family ties to the world of plants. Mindful of the fundamental connections between nature and the human spirit that can be expressed and codified by the patient genesis of a classic garden, Jim Gibbs has created botanical poetry.

Visit gibbsgardens.com for more information.

Photography courtesy of Gibbs Gardens

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About Author

Richard (Dick) Morel is a science writer with a keen interest in the Chattanooga community and, where possible, brining the wonder of nature's workings into articles for Chattanooga Magazine.

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