Story by Brooke Hutchins
The knack for gardening, like the ability to carry a tune or play a sport, seems to be genetic. Or at least that’s what Jim Gibbs, founder and developer of North Georgia’s Gibbs Gardens, wholeheartedly believes. As a young boy growing up in Murphy, N.C., Gibbs found that the green thumb was more than genetic: it was woven into the tender care that his mother, aunts and grandmothers poured into each of their own gardens day after day. “It’s just one of those things that you take in and start to listen to after a while,” the now 71 year-old Gibbs says with the steady and familiar rhythm of a slow, Southern drawl.
Further pursuing his deep-rooted interest, Gibbs made his way to the Classic City to major in horticulture and landscape architecture at The University of Georgia. Hitting the ground running after graduation, he founded Gibbs Landscape Company in 1964 and served as the president of this leading Atlanta landscape company for over 40 years.
But even after such success, there was always something more that lingered in Gibbs’ mind: that child-like fascination with gardens. After traveling around the world to study landscape design and burying his nose in gardening books of all kinds, it occurred to Gibbs that he needed to create a world-class public garden. “I knew that, realistically, it would take me about 30 years to develop a garden of this caliber. But I thought to myself, ‘I think I could do that,’” he remembers with a chuckle.
And that’s just what he did. Seeking out the perfect 300-acre spot in Ball Ground, Georgia for the site of his dream garden and English Manor-style home, Gibbs now lives at the highest point of the stunning property with his wife, Sally.But why Ball Ground? “The key to every beautiful garden is age — a mature forest setting is what really makes a garden spectacular,” Gibbs explains.
In addition to the area’s aged trees, it also boasts an abundance of water with natural springs gently flowing throughout the property. Not to mention its rolling topography, which provides the perfect stage with rows upon rows of flowers at varying heights, all collecting into an aesthetic climax that gently draws the eyes up to into the mountains.
With the lofty goal of developing 10 acres of land per year, Mr. Gibbs finally opened up the gardens to the public in 2012. Living up to its “world-class” name, there are now over 18 garden venues spread throughout the property today. Each one celebrates a different star of the show: roses, water lilies, hydrangeas, azaleas, crepe myrtles, day lilies, birch and cherry trees, and ferns, to name a few, all surrounded by dozens of waterfalls, ponds, and even a replica of the bridge in Monet’s famous Giverny garden. But Gibbs is particularly proud of his over 50 acre daffodil display — the largest in the country with over 20 million vibrantly colorful blooms to delight the senses in the springtime. Another guest favorite is the Japanese gardens, also the largest of its kind in the nation and filled with over 2,000 exquisite Japanese maples, serene spring-fed ponds, Bonsai trees, bridges, ornate pagodas and hand-crafted lanterns.
But even with these garden staples, every inch of the land is designed to constantly change before your eyes —even in between seasons. “If you come once every three weeks,” says Gibbs, “you get a new experience, a new flower festival, every time.”
However, it’s not just the flowers that boast an intentional and striking design. The entire garden experience is meant to be a “balance of natural and man-made beauty,” as Gibbs says. For him, this balance meant deciding to keep untouched the natural beauty of the property, yet sculpting a seamless flow from one garden venue to the next. “Everything in nature is curvilinear. So you’ll never find anything symmetrical or formal in my gardens,” he explains.
A large part of this thoughtful design plan for Gibbs involved putting himself in his guests’ shoes, as any great host does. Each of the hundreds of benches strategically placed around the property are positioned to encourage quiet meditation and full stimulation of the senses. “For me,” says Gibbs, “totally immersing myself in the gardens, taking in all the sights, smells and sounds … it’s a spiritual experience. I love to sit alone and just meditate on how blessed I really am.”
And that’s the kind of experience he wants for each of his guests, many of whom are visiting from the concrete and brick of the bustling city, refreshed by the opportunity to lose contact with the world for a while and fully engage their senses once again.
Even as Gibbs continues to add more to his beloved gardens year after year, reaching back for inspiration into the day dreams of a wide-eyed North Carolina boy with a lofty goal, one thing remains the same: the legacy of his masterpiece. “I want this to be a place that I can leave behind for future generations … for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” he says with a gentleness in his voice.
But more than anything, he wants Gibbs Gardens to be a place where people of all ages can relax out on the rocking chairs, enjoying each other’s company and soaking in the views. “I just want them to look over the terrace and see the breathtaking beauty that Sally and I wake up to everyday,” he says.
Everything in this botanical paradise, down to the smallest detail, is designed with Gibbs’ guests in mind. And he wouldn’t want it any other way. Stop by and he’ll be sure to give you a warm welcome into his favorite “little” spot nestled at the foothills of the North Georgia Mountains — no gardening genes necessary.
To plan your Gibbs Gardens experience, visit: http://gibbsgardens.com.