The Garden Artist
Landscape architect Chip Callaway's Southern designs are a study in living history
Chip Callaway crunches across the pea gravel driveway between the pair of Greensboro, North Carolina, bungalows he calls home and office. Peering out through round tortoiseshell glasses, the smiling teddy bear of a man pauses to identify plants, tossing out Latin names, recalling the wheres and whens of plant after plant, his stories ordering the lovely chaos. “This one I dug up by the side of the road,” he says, bending and tugging on a shaggy candlelike stalk rising from a fuzzy head of leaves. “Over there,” he says, pointing to a spiky canelike plant, “is Elizabeth Lawrence’s ginger.” It was presented to him by the ladies of the Wilson, North Carolina, garden club, one of four cuttings from four prominent local gardeners, each one a plant they themselves had received from Lawrence, author of the classic A Southern Garden, first published in 1942. He calls these heritage plants—heirlooms with a personal connection. ¶ Every plant in Chip Callaway’s garden is a link to the past. To hear him tell their stories
is to experience deeper currents of beauty and meaning beneath the bright colors and pleasing shapes. I begin to understand why he gardens and why people, especially Southerners, covet his gardens. Over the past thirty years, Callaway and a small team of landscape architects have designed more than six hundred gardens, many for clients he calls “titans of commerce” with just a hint of deprecation. He has been tapped to restore important historic landscapes—Robert E. Lee’s Virginia home, Stratford Hall; the Alexander Graham Bell house in Washington, D.C.; the Ellen Biddle Shipman Garden at the Wake Forest University president’s house.
There’s also the simple fact that Paul Faulkner “Chip” Callaway is easy to like. He carries himself with a manner befitting his nickname—loose, confident, familiar, at times even agreeably conspiratorial. Charming and witty, he’s also down-to-earth, sort of like his gardens—whimsical, formal at times, but never fussy. When he describes a gardener who was an early influence on him as someone “without a bone of pretense in her body,” you know from his reverent tone that he means it as the ultimate compliment.
And Callaway can tell a hell of a story.
A few years ago, he designed a garden in Manteo, North Carolina, for Andy Griffith, who, like Callaway, is originally from Mount Airy, the model for the idyllic television town of Mayberry. “Back in June, I get this phone call,” Callaway says. He clears his voice, and in a deep, folksy drawl, continues: “‘Chipper, Andy Griffith. Do you know all those thooouuusands of dollars of plants you dragged down here from the Piedmont?’” Callaway pauses for effect. “‘Well, one of them has died.’” Turns out it wasn’t one of Callaway’s after all, but he sent a crew down anyway to rectify the situation. Worldly as he is—he’s made countless trips to England, France, and Italy to tour famous gardens—people respond to that hint of Mayberry in Callaway. He still designs by hand, still likes to be there during an installation to make last-minute changes based on how a plant looks in the ground as opposed to on paper. In a world that’s tripping over itself to get to tomorrow, Callaway is comfortably rooted in today, with a foot firmly planted in the past.
Callaway’s love of plants was not handed down dir- ectly but rather was passed on by a previous generation, diffracted through the lens of a simpler era. Callaway’s father owned a Mount Airy oil distributorship. “My mother didn’t know a pine tree from a dandelion,” he says with characteristic hyperbole. Nor was she much of a cook. (“She thought the kitchen was that awful room you had to go through to get to the car.”) It was Callaway’s grandparents who inspired his life’s two major passions—gardening and cooking. His mother was one of thirteen and his father one of seven children. Both sets of grandparents lived on farms just outside of Mount Airy. “The earliest memories I have are visiting my maternal grandparents’ house and marveling at the size of their hydrangeas,” he says. “I’d jump out of the car and run to either the garden or the barn.”
He was especially fond of visiting the Callaways, whose farm was in the mountains at a place called Low Gap near Fisher Peak. He’d spend time in the kitchen with his grandmother, who called him a “chip off the old block” until it stuck, baking biscuits and making jelly. “My grandfather,” Callaway recalls, “was wildly knowledgeable about everything in the woods.” He’d take Chip to pick serviceberries and sour cherries. “I knew where every lady’s slipper was within a two-mile range of the house, when the trilliums bloomed, and what time of year to go looking for ginseng.”
Callaway launched his first commercial gardening venture at the age of seven, when he saw an ad in the Sunday paper—a dozen rose plants for a dollar. He saved up his money, and when the roses arrived, he planted them out back in his father’s old hunting-dog run, rich in organic matter, where they climbed the hog-wire fence, safe from nibbling rabbits. When the plants flourished, he clipped the buds and sold them for a nickel each. His paternal grandparents leased some of their rich bottom land to a Dutch bulb company, which grew acres and acres of gladiolas. The company only cared about the bulbs, so the family fed the flowers to the pigs. Callaway would gather the leftover gladiolas and sell them along with his roses. He’d poke boxwood cuttings into the creek bank and later sell the young shrubs. “My grandfather once said, ‘I wish I could grow old enough to see what that boy does one day. It will have something to do with either chickens or flowers.’”