The creator of Gibbs Gardens in Ball Ground believes some people are born with gardening genes and that those genes grow and flourish when planted in the right environment.
How deep the love of gardening runs in Jim Gibbs is evident to the thousands of visitors each year to Gibbs Gardens, chosen in 2020 as one of the top botanical gardens in the country. The northeast Cherokee County property is 336 acres, and the house and gardens include more than three hundred acres, making it one of the nation’s largest residential estate gardens.
Even as a young child Jim was drawn to the beauty of the outdoors. From his childhood days when his love of gardening was first awakened by his family, to his teen years running his first lawn business, through his college days studying horticulture at the University of Georgia, Jim immersed himself in the pageantry of nature.
As a boy Jim often visited his grandparents on their thousand-acre farm, where he walked the land with his grandfather and learned about plants and how they grow, but it was Jim’s two grandmothers and his great aunt who were his greatest inspiration for his first steps toward the creation of Gibbs Garden.
Jim’s Aunt Cat had gardens surrounding her home filled with evergreens, flowering shrubs, annuals, and perennials, imaginatively designed to enhance the beauty of the land and offer a showcase of color and vibrancy.
“It starts with the genes. Then it is about nurturing, allowing those genes to flourish. My gardening relatives encouraged me, telling me I was creative,” Jim explains. “I would listen to them talk about plants, their favorite flowers, and gardening tips. That is when I realized I wanted to go into design of gardens.”
Jim often visited his Aunt Cat and her expansive gardens as a college student at the University of Georgia, building on what he was studying in the classroom with the real-life example of what a well-designed and tended garden could offer in stunning visual beauty.
After college graduation in 1965 with degrees in landscape design and horticulture, Jim began designing clients’ gardens for the well-established Green Brothers Nursery in Atlanta. The masterful garden designer quickly built a reputation for the exquisite gardens he designed. Within a short time he was the owner of the northwest Atlanta location of the company he helped make successful, and soon he renamed it. By the mid-1970s Gibbs Landscape Company was firmly planted as a leading garden design and landscape business, and Jim’s reputation continued to grow and blossom. Jim went on to design gardens for other people for the next thirty-five years.
“I have been fortunate to design so many beautiful gardens over the years, some of them large gardens where I could use all my talents,” Jim offers. “One of the most memorable was the gardens of Dorothy Fuqua, whose Japanese garden was well-known.”
Jim was a founding member of the Atlanta Botanical Garden and originally helped clear the land for the important gardening attraction and resource. While serving on the board of trustees at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, he also helped find donors, two of whom were the Fuquas.
Dorothy Fuqua and her husband, J. B. Fuqua, a politician and businessman, were two of Atlanta’s most prominent philanthropists, and the Dorothy C. Fuqua Conservatory and Orchid House at the Atlanta Botanical Garden bears her name. Her private garden, which Jim helped create, drew visits from many of her close friends, including First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, as well as visiting dignitaries such as the Dalai Lama, who visited Dorothy in the Japanese gardens she created over the years at her Atlanta home.
One of the institutions Fuqua helped establish, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Texas, was named for her friend, the former First Lady.
Jim’s work on the Japanese garden for Dorothy Fuqua inspired him, and when he created the Japanese Garden for Gibbs Gardens, he named it in dedication to her for her encouragement of him and his career. “I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Dottie Fuqua. She was a kind and wonderful woman and taught me a lot about garden design,” he recalls.
Another favorite client of Jim’s is Dee Day Sanders, an avid gardener and leader in the Garden Clubs of Georgia and the honorary life president of the National Garden Clubs. She also donated the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center to Calloway Gardens. Jim worked with her on her personal gardens at her beautiful home, Belle Mere, in north Atlanta.
Another favorite private garden for Jim was that of Atlanta real estate developer Jeff Small and his wife, Eileen Small, whose home included thirty acres of gardens along the Chattahoochee River. Jim also recalls designing all the Chick-fil-A headquarters gardens as a special project.
Realizing His Dream
Jim Gibbs is a self-described dreamer. Even as his career unfolded in Atlanta, his dream grew to have his own botanical garden that he would personally design. That dream led him on a forty-year journey to create Gibbs Gardens.
Jim’s journey toward his dream began when he returned from a visit in 1973 to Kyoto, Japan, a city known for its gardens. “I had the great fortune in my life to be able to visit some of the most outstanding gardens in the world. Those gardens inspired me and laid the foundation. But I knew gardens such as those took time to build and cost a lot of money. They also needed abundant water.”
By 1980 Jim knew that he wanted three hundred acres for his plan and that it would take thirty-five years to build. He started on his journey to find the perfect spot to plant his garden. He had been searching for land for several years, but that spring as he was driving along Yellow Creek Road in Cherokee County, he finally found his paradise.
When Jim saw a man burning debris by the side of the road, he pulled over to ask if he knew of any land for sale in the area. The man told Jim that he had some acreage to sell and invited him back in a few days to tour the land.
“What I found was land that met all my search criteria. The land is so beautiful, it took my breath away. There were natural springs on the property, which would supply the water needed, and the location was close enough to Atlanta to allow easy access,” Jim recalls. “After seven years of searching I had found the land I needed. I thought, ‘This is it.’”
By 1981 initial work on the garden infrastructure began and continued for the next seven years. Meanwhile plans for Jim and his wife Sally to build their home on the property got underway, and in the spring of 1986, the Gibbs family broke ground on what would become the Arbor Crest Manor House.
The magnificent five-thousand-square-foot home was inspired by manor houses in France and England. A twelve-foot-high fourteenth-century limestone fireplace imported from France, antique heart-of-pine beams from a warehouse in Savannah, and brick floors are just some of the features in the interior of the home.
Jim and his wife continue to live in the manor house. It is not open to the public, but visitors to Gibbs Gardens are able to walk up to the house and enjoy the beautifully landscaped grounds surrounding the dwelling.
“The gardens in Europe allow people to walk up to the house and see what the owners see. When we began planning Gibbs Gardens, I told Sally that when we open the gardens people will come up to the house, and she understood from the beginning how important that is,” Jim explains. “We visit with them, we let them see what we see each day, and we enjoy it. People say they don’t see how we do it, but it was always in the plan.”
The Manor House Gardens provide visitors with seasonal floral displays such as the daffodil, azalea, rhododendron, and hydrangea gardens, the Rose Arbor, the Woodland Shade Gardens, and the Nature Canopy Walk.
Gibbs Gardens opened to the public in 2012, and in the ten years since, hundreds of thousands of visitors have enjoyed the lovely experience of walking the property.
Jim continues to expand and enhance the experience, though.
Butterflies and Nature – the Dream Continues
In 2021 Jim planted cosmos in eight acres of the wildflower garden. “One of my main reasons was to attract the monarchs to visit Gibbs Gardens in September, October, and early November on their migration to Central Mexico,” Jim offers. “We want to attract them again on their return trip north during March, April, and May with spring flowers.”
Jim points out the striking monarchs must find plentiful and nutritious food to fuel their flight and propagation. “One day last fall I was standing in the midst of the cosmos, and I looked up and saw what looked like a yellow cloud. I realized it was the butterflies, and suddenly they descended to the gardens.”
Children especially were delighted to see the thousands of butterflies.
“This spring on their return flight, Gibbs Gardens will be ready to entice and nurture them again with fields of bright poppies, larkspur, milkweed, and more goldenrod,” he says with enthusiasm. “As a child I was fascinated by butterflies. Children who come to our gardens love to see the monarchs just as much. People are mesmerized watching butterflies hover and land on the flowers.”
The Inspiration Garden is another new addition, where visitors can find plants to inspire ideas for their personal gardens. “When Hurricane Irma came through and took down trees, I had to be creative. I decided to install a lot of plants that will inspire future generations of gardeners,” he explains enthusiastically.
The Inspiration Garden includes 215 species of dwarf conifers and thirty-three varieties of Encore Azaleas, for a total of 1,200 of the popular bushes. The garden also includes Drift Roses, Knockout Roses, rare Japanese maples and 1,800 native azaleas.
Jim recently purchased an additional fifty-six acres overlooking the Hollis Q. Lathem Reservoir to add to the gardens, where visitors will be able to enjoy a native Southeastern plant collection. “They can experience a natural ridge with a stream on each side and huge trees of mountain laurel. It offers a wonderful experience.”
Jim says his greatest joy is to walk through the gardens and talk with visitors and hear what they love about Gibbs Gardens. “I have received so much joy over the years from those who have visited us here.”
Gibbs Gardens is located at 1987 Gibbs Drive, Ball Ground, Georgia. For information visit GibbsGardens.com. Allow one and a half hours to tour all the many gardens at Gibbs Gardens.
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Canton writer Rebecca Johnston is a Cherokee County native and graduate of Cherokee High School and the University of Georgia. Rebecca has won several Georgia Press Association awards for her writing, including the 2007 First Place Award for Serious Columnist. She currently writes for Enjoy Cherokee Magazine.