'The Well-Placed Weed' Honors the Work and Legacy of the Late Gardener Ryan Gainey

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Eccentric master gardener Ryan Gainey wasn't just known for his elaborate garden designs but also for his whimsical style. David Schilling

There's a saying among gardeners that when the gardener dies, the garden dies with them. If Ryan Gainey ever heard that, he wasn't buying it.

Ryan said as much in a documentary about his life. The world-renowned garden designer, who many called a genius for his ability to create a distinctive style by combining colors, textures and form with classical and cottage concepts, made the comments in August 2012 on the back porch of his Decatur, Georgia, home. That was almost four years to the day before he perished while rushing into a raging house fire with a garden hose at a second home in Lexington, Georgia, in a futile attempt to save his beloved Jack Russell terriers, Leo, JB and Baby Ruth.

Ryan's untimely death on July 29, 2016, shocked the gardening world and forced the film's creators, Steve Bransford, senior video producer at Emory University's Center for Digital Scholarship, and Cooper Sanchez, a garden designer trained by Ryan, to come up with a new ending after they thought they had wrapped up six years of filming.

"We thought the film was done," said Steve about "The Well-Placed Weed, The Bountiful Life of Ryan Gainey," which is named after Ryan's best-known book. (A DVD of the documentary is available online for $15 and will also air on PBS in 2019.) "Then we had a new end to the project, unfortunately." They used the August 2012 filming session to set up an ending they had never anticipated. Like many of the interviews with Ryan, this one was informal and wide-ranging and included, as fate would have it, a light-hearted comment by Ryan about the afterlife and a more introspective one.

"Ryan was talking about how he had managed to be successful working for himself for 40 years," Steve said. "Very recently, before this filming session, Disney had filmed a movie in Ryan's garden called 'The Odd Life of Timothy Green.' Ryan said that a friend had asked him how much Disney paid him to film in the garden. He said he told her, 'Let's just put it this way. I bought myself a seat in Heaven sitting next to the Supreme Being.' And she said, 'Well, if you made that much money, you gonna buy any seats for the rest of us?'" Ryan said he told her, "'Nope. But I did put in a petition about a few extra seats, and I was told that there were so many requests for people wanting to sit on either side of me or somewhere close to me in Heaven, that God said to me, I'm just gonna give you your own room.'"

Ryan chuckled at his joke, and, after a long pause, Cooper, who was off camera, asked Ryan, "Where are you going to go when you die?"

"I'm not leaving," Ryan replied.

"You're not?" Cooper responded with some incredulity. "You're going to stay right here?"

"I'm going to disperse myself into a thousand motes," Ryan explained. "You know what a mote is? M-O-T-E. A mote is a fleck of dust. I'm going to float for eternity ... and infiltrate any human being that has the consciousness to float out into the world and see me floating by and wanting to absorb the reality of who I was. My knowledge is what will be dispersed. So, I ain't goin' nowhere. Because once you become the memory of a human being, as long as that person is alive, the memory is alive. Because memory is possession."

Memories of Gainey run the gamut

Gainey in flower garden
Ryan was known for being both tough as nails but also very caring, especially when it came to his plants. Robert Rausch

In one sense, Ryan was right. He hasn't gone anywhere — at least to those who knew him best. His memory remains very much alive in those he trained and mentored in garden design and managing a business with, the ones he introduced to gardening, the people he inspired to help him create and sponsor some of Atlanta's most prominent garden events, those he worked with to headline fundraisers and the ones he connected with to share his books and botanical art to further horticultural knowledge.

Several of them took time to reflect on the man behind the documentary ... Steve and Cooper, self-described documentary nerds and, in Cooper's case, a one-time mow, blow and go guy and artist who Ryan inspired to become an accomplished garden designer; Brooks Garcia, another well-known Atlanta landscape designer who Ryan trained and mentored; Rick Berry, the owner of Goodness Grows nursery in Lexington who propagated plants that Ryan acquired by hook or, sometimes, crook; Staci Catron, the director of Cherokee Garden Library at the Atlanta History Center; Mary Wayne Dixon, an Atlanta Botanical Garden benefactor and gardener who worked with Ryan and Tom Woodham to create the Garden for Connoisseurs Tour, a Mother's Day tradition in Atlanta that will celebrate its 35th year in 2019*; and Teresa Parrish, a neighbor who Ryan introduced to gardening and who, to the surprise of many, Ryan entrusted in his will with his signature Decatur garden and, by extension, the most visual part of his legacy.

Collectively, their memories of him add additional insight into the man Steve and Cooper portray so well in the documentary, which they consider to be the first attempt to delve into the complexities of Ryan's life and his often-contradictory nature. He was unrelentingly demanding, but incredibly sensitive, never missing a chance to show kindness or gratitude. He was a mentor and a tormentor. He was eccentric, yet often down-to-earth. He was mischievous, sometimes snitching a plant from someone's yard, but would make sure it was propagated so it would be available to the gardening public. He was a jerk (many would use a stronger word) who could also be tender and understanding.

All of these people have stories that, as Ryan put it in the documentary, reveal the reality of who he was. Oh, the stories ...

A random act of kindness

garden with pathway
Ryan was completely self-taught yet he designed gardens for elite clientele. David Schilling

"Ryan and I were dear friends and, at times, he treated me much like a niece," recalled Staci Catron, who met Ryan in the mid-'90s shortly after she graduated from Agnes Scott College and was working in a little café in Decatur called Très Bien. She was interested in gardening but lost touch with him until she came to the Cherokee Garden Library at the Atlanta History Center in 2000. They reconnected when he became involved through his generous donations of books and botanical prints to the library as well as through his artistry in creating spectacular floral designs for the library's public programs.

"Everyone knows Ryan could be difficult and complex, wonderful and sometimes really hard to deal with," continued Staci, who wrote the recently published "Seeking Eden: A Collection of Georgia's Historic Gardens" (April 2018, University of Georgia Press). "But, he was always incredibly kind and supportive of me and my intellectual pursuits, particularly my interest in horticultural and garden history. He was a mentor, very kind to me and gentle, and that's a word no one uses with Ryan very much."

She remembers when Ryan showed his kind and gentle side during a visit to his Decatur garden. She was walking through the garden with him and Robert Willis, an assistant and dear friend who had worked with Ryan for about 10 years before he died two months before Ryan died in the fire.

"I wasn't having a good day, and Ryan turned to Robert and said something I couldn't hear." Robert left them alone, and Staci and Ryan continued walking through the garden. "We were talking about this plant and that plant. When I left, I got out to my old beat-up Subaru, and it was filled with fragrant, cut flowers so that I would feel better. Who does something like that? Ryan Gainey."

Mentor and tormentor

gainey lush green garden
He was known to steal plants from other people's gardens if he felt the plants weren't properly appreciated. David Schilling

As Staci knew, Ryan wasn't always kind and gentle, even to the people he mentored.

"Ryan was very complex," said Brooks Garcia, who created his own garden design business after working for Ryan for two years in the late 1980s. "He was a taskmaster, absolutely demanding. A perfectionist who was irascible and who had a temper. But he also had a great sense of humor, a great wit and was a romantic at heart. He was somewhere between brilliance and insanity. The man never stopped. He was absolutely driven. When I worked for him, Ryan's was the first call in the morning at 6:30 and the last call at night. He was like a bulldog sometimes. He wouldn't let things go, and he would just stay on you and needle you. He was my mentor, but also my tormentor."

Everyone who knew Ryan well knew he had a list of people he would call for various reasons. But Brooks, who said Ryan would sometimes call him five times in one day, didn't learn until after he died just how he went about that. "We found out from his family that he had three flip phones completely filled with contacts of people he would call," Brooks said. "Sometimes he would call to share information about what he had just learned, because he loved entomology and words. He would look something up and call you to tell you about it. But, for me and Ryan it was completely about plants. He would call and say, 'I need for you to look up such and such' because he refused to step into the 21st century and have a computer. He relied on other people to do that for him, and I was really good at finding plants for him."

Brooks worked for Ryan for two years until the pressure just became too much. "I stopped working for him to start my own company, and he didn't speak to me for two years. And then he started calling me again and rebuilt a friendship that lasted until he passed away. I learned so much from him, and he helped me sort of prepare to do my own business and how to deal with clients." Or, as the case may be, how not to deal with clients.

Brooks remembers the time they were at a client's house for a consultation and Ryan went into full Ryan mode. "Ryan was almost in a breakneck pace going through the garden, dressed in his garb, his flowing dusters, his scarves and his hat, and he's waving his hands around and pontificating. The poor client turns to me, looking just like the deer in the headlights, and says, 'What is he talking about?' I said, 'I'm writing it all down, I'll put it on paper, I'll present it to you in a plan and I'll give you a budget.' She grabbed my arm, looked at me and said, 'Thank you so much!' Then she ran off to follow him and listen to what he was saying."

So demanding, 'I couldn't take it'

garden with arbor
The famous gardener opened his home garden up to tours for the general public. David Schilling

Cooper, who's an artist who designs and restores gardens and who became a gardener at Atlanta's historic Oakland Cemetery thanks to an introduction by Brooks, also worked for Ryan. But he didn't last nearly as long as Brooks, working for Ryan for only about six months. "I couldn't take it," he said.

"We became friends about a year after I quit working for him. This was at the tail end of his career. I think he was upset with me. He was very demanding. But when we became friends it was much better, but he was still very demanding. I would frequently be on the call list where I would get a couple of calls a day, and I always loved to hear what he had to say."

One of those calls showed Ryan's conflicted nature, which in this case ranged from being deeply sensitive and caring to, well, not so much, at least regarding Cooper's time. Still, to this day the call remains endearing and deeply personal to Cooper.

"I was infatuated with crabapples about four or five years ago, but I guess because of fire blight and for other reasons they had fallen out of fashion. People were using espaliered pears and other things to emulate an orchard setting or whatever. I called all over Georgia and found people who used to grow them in nurseries and did as much research as I could. I felt like everybody that I would talk to, like Ryan and Brooks, would think ... 'Go away kid. Don't bug me. I don't care about crabapples like you do.'

"Then, one day, Ryan called and asked, 'What are you doing?' It was kind of a rainy day, and I said, 'I'm just piddling around.' And Ryan said, 'Come pick me up, I have something to show you.'" Cooper drove to Ryan's house, and several hours later they wound up south of Macon. "We drove we drove to Middle Georgia somewhere, and he took me to the oldest Callaway crabapple in the state of Georgia. If I had known we were going to drive that far, I probably wouldn't have gone!"

"This was like a 32-year-old tree. And Ryan told me this tree gets the least fire blight of crabapples, and said he thought it was attractive and we should grow Callaways (this is one of the few varieties of crabapple that will perform well in the humid Southeast). Before that, I never knew he gave a damn about crabapples. But he took my interest and made it his. By God if he didn't get Callaway crabapples, and Goodness Grows started growing them and he began planting them himself. I was like ... just the fact that he cared enough to do all of that meant a lot to me."

Ryan connected to people through plants

gainey manicured garden
Even small urban spaces could be transformed into elaborate gardens under Ryan's supervision. David Schilling

Steve met Cooper when he was filming a video profile of an art show Cooper was doing in 2009 at Oakland Cemetery. They became friends and realized they were both what Steve calls documentary nerds. They decided they wanted to do a documentary on Ryan, but not the kind Ryan originally thought they were doing, which was one that featured him as a gardener. Others had been there and done that. They wanted to go deeper and do a character study.

One reason Steve was able to understand his subject so well was that in 2014 he, his wife and sons, who had wanted to move to Decatur because of the schools, found a house across the street from Ryan's. "Ryan kind of gave me and Cooper carte blanche to go over whenever we wanted, which was wonderful, but I felt like I had special access, especially living across the street," said Steve. "In the morning, before I went to work at Emory, I would take my macro lens and shoot tight images of flowers when the light was really nice."

One of the things that Steve learned and came to appreciate about Ryan as he got to know him as a neighbor and in the six years they spent filming him from 2010-2016 was how much Ryan connected people and plants. "I would go into Ryan's garden, and I saw it as a beautiful mix of colors, textures, fragrance and overlapping blooms. But for him, it was this whole landscape of people. There were plants his Aunt Marie or his great grandmother gave him or plants with historical connections to people like Thomas Jefferson. That's what I think is one of the most special aspects of Ryan's garden style. His garden was not just a collection of beautiful plants masterfully arranged, but it was plants that for him had a deep, deep personal connection, which I found fascinating."

He expected to be the center of attention

gainey wearing flowers
Ryan was known amongst his friends for not liking to be upstaged. David Schilling

As much as people meant to him, Ryan didn't like being upstaged, even by people he was fond of.

Mary Wayne Dixon, who Ryan asked to join him and Woodham in creating the Garden for Connoisseurs Tour, found that out at the famous Chelsea Flower Show in London in the mid-1980s. This was during a time when Ryan would organize gardening trips to Britain and France.

"We went to the Chelsea Flower Show, I think it was in 1985. A college roommate had made a hat for me to wear to the show. I had never been to the Chelsea, so this was a big deal. I took this hat and, wouldn't you know, the day we were going it was pouring down rain. But I was determined to wear that hat!"

They arrived early, about 7 a.m., Mary Wayne recalled. "Nobody was there but us, and Ryan was all excited. A BBC crew came in, and we all thought they were there to interview Ryan. But they wanted to interview me because of the hat. I remember saying, 'Oh, no! You don't want me. You want him,'" pointing toward Ryan.

"He was standing there with his arms folded across his chest, just glaring at us. And they said, 'Oh, no. We want you. Whose hat is that?' And I said, 'Well, it's mine.' And then they asked if I was an actress, and I said, 'Yeah, a bad one!' Anyway, it was on the BBC news that night, and a couple of friends in London saw it and could not believe it. They did not interview Ryan! They probably didn't know who Ryan was. Nobody else was there with a hat on because it was pouring down rain, but I was determined to wear it. Ryan was upset that I became the star when he was the star! From then on we were good friends."

Even friends had to set boundaries

Gainey with dog by fountain
Ryan's love for his dogs — and his desire to bring them with him everywhere — sometimes got under the skin of his friends. Terminus Films

One of his closest friends who he knew the longest was Rick Berry, the owner of Goodness Grows. They had met many years ago when Rick and Marc Richardson, his later partner, were growing perennials and selling them at a flea market in Atlanta called Elco.

"Ryan frequented that place and loved the plant material they were growing. He had just recently returned from a trip to Giverny and had gotten inspired with exterior gardening. He had recently acquired the property in Decatur, and was working on the exterior garden. The fact that he met us and was able to have a new source at his disposal for things he didn't have before excited him. So, we developed a very good relationship as far as being able to work together with him buying plants from us, encouraging us to grow certain things. He would go out and find things he was enamored with, share them with us and encourage us to grow to have them available to him as well as having them available on the market. That's pretty much been the relationship we've had through the years."

Ryan bought the house in Lexington from Rick after Rick had invited him to a Christmas open house there. "He was just very excited because it was close to me, and he could walk to the nursery because it was across the street. He had basically retired at that point but said he wanted to work for me. I told him he could be our international ambassador, and he was wonderful. He would call his clients and people he knew and tell them about different plant material we had and say you need to buy this or you need to buy that from Rick. Then things would walk out of here."

As close as they were, Rick knew he had to set ground rules with Ryan. Of course, that didn't mean Ryan would always obey them. "I told him you have to have all your dogs on a leash. I can't have them running all over the place like banshees. He had three of the dogs that he carried around on a leash. During one of our beer festivals he was wandering around with those three dogs. At one point, I watched him walking away like he was going home, and there were three leashes but two dogs. The third one was behind him. I wish I had taken a photograph of it."

Rick also knew Ryan tried to shock people by being politically incorrect. He remembers the time they wanted to build a fence around his house and he had to have a historic preservation representative come out and approve it. When the person arrived, "Ryan said, 'Well, of course I'm going to have a penis attached to the top of each one of these columns.' He just didn't care."

Rick thinks there was a hidden reason for this exuberance. "He was shy. He would cover up a lot of his shyness with his exuberance. And as much as he always loved to get people to look at him, there were parts of him he didn't let everybody see. And, so, the longer and the better you got to know him, the more you would know he was just a shy kind of guy."

Ryan had experienced a very difficult time in the last year of his life, and Rick could also tell that Ryan was becoming more and more aware of his mortality. His close friend Robert had died; Ryan had been dragged by his car down the street in front of his Decatur home, breaking several ribs; and the huge 140-year-old oak tree that was the centerpiece of the Decatur garden had fallen onto the house, knocking it off the foundation and making the house unlivable, which prompted Ryan to move full-time to the Lexington house. During some of their conversations, Berry remembers Ryan asking him what he should do about his will. Rick said he told him, "Follow your heart."

A young family inherits the legacy

Teresa Parrish, Ryan Gainey garden
Teresa Parrish carries on Gainey's legacy by maintaining his garden that he entrusted to her in his will. Tom Oder

Ryan didn't have to go far to do that. He left the Decatur and Lexington homes to Teresa Parrish, a young neighbor who lived across the street from his Decatur garden with her husband and two small sons. Ryan's decision came as a shock to everyone, it seems, but Teresa — though she would have never anticipated it when he introduced her to gardening almost four years before.

"My first interaction with him was when he basically told me that I didn't know what I was doing in my front garden," she said. "A few days later he came back, threw a few plants in my yard and told me to dig holes and plant them. That was my introduction to gardening via Ryan Gainey. And then he said, ‘Do you know who I am?' And I said, 'No sir. I have no idea. I know that you are Mr. Gainey, my neighbor,' and he let out a protracted sigh and stomped back across the street. I thought ... who is this person? People told me, well, that's Ryan Gainey. That was how we came to know each other, and after that we became great friends."

One of the reasons they became friends was because Ryan loved having her boys come over and play in the garden. "He showed them things like how to plant nasturtiums. He explained that you have to soak the seeds before you plant them, and then he would get down and poke holes in pots and show them how to plant the seeds. They would stand next to the pond and throw seed starters pots in the pond. The poor fish. I think they probably got clocked in the head with these things. And they would run around with the dogs. All the while Ryan was like ... just let them be! Let them do what they are going to do.

"I've always thought about him sitting around and being alone and how quiet it can be when you are alone in your house. So, I think when the dogs were barking and they were crazy and the kids were coming over that he really loved that. He liked the noise and being around the chaos. It was lovely to see how much time they spent there. They loved him."

As their friendship grew, he would come over to the Parrish house to visit and talk. "He really opened up the last year of his life about some of the things that happened. He was hurt and sad, but I think he tried to keep that separate from us. He liked our happiness, so he would come over and be a part of it."

Teresa was at home when the tree fell. She heard the roots snapping and the crunching of the roof as the huge trunk and limbs crashed onto Ryan's house. She knew immediately what had happened and sprinted across the street, going into the back of the house as plaster was still falling from the ceiling and limbs were bobbing up and down. "When the tree fell on his house. it wasn't like I was running out to save just anyone. It was like running out to save my family. I ran into the house to get him, just as I would my kids, my dog, my husband, anybody who is close to me. At some point, we crossed the friendship line with Ryan and went into the family line. I remember a couple of days before Ryan died, he gave me a hug and told me he loved me. He had never said that before. And I was like, 'Huh, that's a really big step for him.'"

She knew from their talks that Gainey was leaving the garden to her after offering it to the city of Decatur and being turned down because it didn't come with millions of dollars in endowments and was a maintenance nightmare. "So, at this point he was kind of like ... what do I do with my life's work? And he said. I'll just give it to you. I said, 'I don't think I'm up for that.' Then he asked me a couple of other times about it, and we talked about it, and I knew he had given the garden to me. I told him, 'I hope you have 20 more years to live and I have 20 years to learn from you. And we're going to take it slow and you can talk more about what you want.'"

As it turned out, she didn't have 20 years to learn from Ryan. She only had two and, really, not even that long because Ryan had moved away. To complicate matters, in May 2018 she had to have the Decatur house torn down because it was so infested with termites and powderpost beetles that it was beyond repair. She and her husband are building a new house on the property and are working to restore the garden, which had fallen into some disrepair. Their goal is to create a sense of sameness, both in the flow of the new house, repairing structures in the garden like the greenhouse that were showing the wear and tear of aging and in preserving the whimsy of the garden Ryan created without trying to restore it to exactly the way it might have looked 10 years ago. She thinks that would make it feel like a museum and, as such, have a sense of sadness.

Instead, her goal is to make the garden and house beautiful yet functional with a sense of joy that can be seen in the family that not only lives there but loves the space and will take care of it — which she thinks would please Ryan to no end, and why she believes he left it to her in the first place. "I feel like he knew I would make sure it was taken care of and our kids would play there. He loved my boys and let them wreak havoc in the garden when they were over there. And maybe he knew that I would fall in love with it. I don't know. But, I really think that he thought I would keep his memory alive and keep people coming to it and keep people talking about him. That was important to him. We loved him, and he loved us. Now I love the garden."

*Note: The garden will be on the Atlanta Botanical Garden's 2019 Gardens for Connoisseurs Tour on Mothers Day weekend. This will be the 35th year of the tour that Ryan Gainey created with his friends Tom Woodham and Mary Wayne Dixon. The garden hasn't been on the tour since the tree fell on the house in March 2016. The tree is prominent in the beginning and the end of the documentary.