By Katie Jackson
Gardening is hard work but it can also be about play. Just ask Jim Scott, who has proven that breaking rules and having fun with a garden can result in something amazing.
Scott is the owner and creator of a private garden on the shores of Lake Martin that is quirky, playful, ever-evolving and has drawn attention from across the nation, maybe even world, perhaps because it doesn’t play by the rules of traditional gardening.
Scott, a Montgomery attorney and award-winning garden writer, began his lakeside playland nearly 15 years ago, but his interest in gardening was first kindled several years before as he was sitting in a Sunday service at Grace Episcopal Church in Mount Meigs, Ala., a church his family has attended for eight generations.
“The sermon that day was boring,” he says, so his eyes and mind wandered out the window to a summerhouse that he and his brother had built on the church grounds in memory of their mother. He noticed that the area around the summerhouse was a tangle of blackberry vines, “so I thought it would be cool to have a little lawn there.”
Scott and his late wife, Vivian, cleaned and spruced up the area and, sure enough, parishioners began to use the space for weddings and other events, which led the Scotts to further develop the grounds around the church. He focused on the woody plants, Vivian focused on the perennials and the couple literally dug into the project…so much so that they were often identified as “he’s the man in the bushes and she’s the woman in the bed.”
Their gardening appetites whetted, the Scotts then found themselves with a new project—the land around their newly-built lake house. Shortly after the house was completed a tornado blew through the area. The house was relatively unscathed, but the storm uprooted and felled most of the trees on their steep wooded lot. When those were removed the Scotts were left with a bare, muddy hillside.
“It’s kind of like that ‘Bobby McGee’ song—freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” Scott says. “I thought that ‘you couldn’t hurt anything.” So, with the help of a local landscaper and rock mover, Ricky Pope, Scott brought in boulders and turned the gully that ran down the hill into a waterfall, the first of several water features that are integral to the garden today.
Scott then began adding to the garden, and also the land holdings, around the lake house and the garden began to evolve with really no grand plan for the space, only imagination at play.
Imagination has been plentiful.
“There is not a lack of ideas,” Scott says. For each project Scott has completed there are probably 50 others in the till, some of which he describes as “really cool but just too weird.” In fact, sometimes the challenge for Scott is to control his creative enthusiasm. “It’s like someone putting a gnome out in their yard and they like it, so they put out 200 gnomes and it looks like hell. Sometimes I have to de-gnome myself.”
Actually, the ideas themselves, which Scott sketches out when inspiration strikes, seem to self-regulate and find their own expression once they are put into action. “Often what I have drawn never ends up like it started. It informs and clarifies itself in the process: One thing suggests another. I never had anything end up the way it started.”
The ideas are also informed by the land and climate of his site and Scott has learned to let both help dictate his design and plant selection, at least to some degree. Through trial and error, he has figured out which plants work or where they fit best in a microclimate within the garden. That does not stop him from trying anything he likes, though.
“There are plants that everyone in Montgomery can grow and I can’t,” he says. “But I’ve also had success with things that everyone says you can’t grow. I don’t believe I can’t grow anything unless I have killed it twice myself (a philosophy Scott adopted from the acclaimed North Carolina horticulturist J.C. Raulston). But sometimes I just have to admit…that the girl doesn’t love me.“
Truth is, Scott rarely plays by the rules in any aspect of his garden, a liberty he can take because he is not a professional landscape designer or horticulturist. While he admires and fully appreciates the effort and thought that go into formal, planned gardens, he usually does the exact opposite.
“I don’t have to live by a plan and it is kind of fun being random. You surprise your own self. And I can change something tomorrow and no one will fuss at me,” he says.
The result is that his garden is a self-professed “jumble” comprised of lots of little areas, each with a distinct personality and mood. Some are quirky, others extravagant, still others intimate. Some provide a spot for quiet meditation, others a place for playing with noisy abandon, still others a space for gathering together groups for meals or swims or even overnight stays.
The paths in the garden wind and twist just enough that a visitor can’t see, but can anticipate, what is around the next corner, which Scott feels provides that balance of tension and relief—wildness and civilization—that any good garden, or any good book or piece of music for that matter, offers.
And the garden is truly experienced only by wandering those paths and elevated walkways that lead to such surprises as a children’s castle, a big-as-life chess board, a secret room behind a waterfall, a wine cellar tucked into the side of the hill, whimsical signage and sculptures, a rope swing and zip line and many spots to sit and think or relish a meal or glass of wine. And, of course, all of this is tucked among a huge array of plants that Scott—in a nod toward some degree of planning—tries to ensure will provide something of a show from March till late October or early November.
There are unifying elements in all these spots, such as the sound or sight of water throughout the garden and a subtle Greek theme among the garden sculptures and architecture. But it is the cumulative effect of each of these elements and the spaces they inhabit that make it special.
“A lot of gardens are a view of a space,” Scott says, but while those views may be lovely, he wonders: Are they used? “What I built at the lake is not so much a garden as an experience of space through time. It accumulates. I think as you go through my garden it is not that any one thing is particularly nice, but strung together it is a pleasant experience.”
“I think my garden says there aren’t any rules here,” he adds. “It is really just a nicely silly garden and it says ‘don’t take yourself too seriously’ and ‘there is nothing to be uptight about here.’”
The attention his garden has received—and it has received lots of attention regionally and nationally (featured in Fine Gardening magazine and on HGTV, for example)—is, Scott thinks, also an indication that the public needs access to more good private gardens.
That’s one reason that Scott generously allows some public access to his garden, though he limits that access to by-appointment-only visits from educational groups of 20 or more on weekdays when he and his family are not at the lake.
Allowing visitors at the garden actually has a direct benefit for Scott. “The beauty of having other people come through your garden is that all you ever see is what is wrong with it and when somebody else says it looks good you realize it does. It is a pleasure seeing it through other people’s eyes.”
But he also hopes a visit to his garden provides a message to visitors as they contemplate their own garden spaces. Regardless of the amount of land, money or time people have, Scott thinks anyone can create a garden playground if they will let their imagination have some fun and be willing to take some risks.
“My garden does not look like most other gardens and I think the fact that you can just make it up—that a garden doesn’t have to look like a garden—and that someone who doesn’t know a thing about gardening can do it is good for people to know.”
The other thing about Scott’s garden is that it is still evolving. Not only does Scott have new projects under way and several waiting in the wings to begin, which will be completed with the help of Hilltop Landscaping from Alexander City, Ala., as well as his on-site horticulturists and caretakers, Jeannie and Chris, some of the original landscaping there is due for a makeover and update, which Scott embraces as “an opportunity—or an excuse—to do something different.“
Through the process and evolution of this non-garden garden, Scott, his family and friends will continue to play in that space and enjoy it as more than a beautiful view. Perhaps he will also inspire others to do the same with their own spaces, turning the hard work of gardening into play…and maybe even breaking a few rules in the process.
To book a tour of Jim Scott’s gardens, contact Jeannie Curtis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 334-740-2091.