April 21, 2007

Pellett’s Palette — How a South Carolina Boy Came to Know and Grow Some of the Mid-South’s Finest Gardens

By Christine Arpe Gang Special to The Commercial Appeal

Garden designer Tom Pellett isn't into electronic technology or other forms of self-promotion. He doesn't have a Web site, an e- mail address or a cell phone.

You won't find him handing out business cards and if you ask him about a garden he designed, he heaps more credit on the owner than himself.

To his clients, professional peers and members of the gardening community, he's a Renaissance man.

"He's an artist, an intellectual and a plantsman," said Dale Skaggs, University of Tennessee extension horticulturist for Shelby County. "He brings all of those talents together in his garden designs."

Pellett, who is almost never without a sketch pad, finds pleasure in painting with watercolors and had a showing of his work two years ago at the Memphis Botanic Garden. He sometimes paints botanical subjects, but mostly it's the

colorful abstracts he calls "playful compositions."

He launched his garden design business in Memphis more than 20 years ago with Bickie McDonnell's 3-acre East Memphis garden, considered to be one of the most outstanding in Memphis.

"He's gifted with an eye for design," said McDonnell . "He can see how a bed will look before it's planted and he has great understanding of form, shape, contrast and color."

Rick Pudwell admires Pellett's artistic use of color and texture, especially in the sensory garden he designed at the Memphis Botanic Garden, where Pudwell is director of horticulture.

"He's bold in his use of plants," Pudwell said. "He plants things others don't."

Instead of sticking to the commonly grown plants of this area, Pellett stretches himself and his clients by using unusual plants, but only if they are well suited to local conditions.

"He uses some great plants that you don't see anywhere else, except in his gardens," said Paul Little, owner of Little Hill Nursery and past president of the Memphis Horticultural Society. "He has wonderful ideas for troublesome places."

Skaggs remembers Pellett's insistence on specific plants when he worked as a landscape installer on some of his early projects.

"He'd give me a plant list and I'd have to go to five or six nurseries to find everything," Skaggs said. "The nurseries would tell me I could substitute other plants but Tom wouldn't accept them. He got what he wanted and that was it."

Some of those substitute plants ended up in the yard of Skaggs' parents.

Pellett, 58, did not set out to be a garden designer, but working with nature was always in his plans.

On the pond at his childhood home in Greenville, S. C., Pellett spent many hours observing turtles, frogs and snakes and he thought about pursuing zoology.

But he also remembers the first time he identified a plant growing near the pond by using a natural history field guide. It was a cardinal flower.

In his early years at Vanderbilt and Tulane universities, he concentrated on architecture and engineering. But he ended up with a degree in fine arts from California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland (now California College of the Arts).

He met his wife, Margaret, in the communal kitchen of a boarding house in Greenville, S. C., when he was back in his hometown working for a landscape contractor.

"I was drawing plans for his designs, doing some of my own designs and digging holes, too," Pellett said.

The couple moved to Memphis in 1983 when Margaret accepted a job as a librarian at Memphis State University. The couple have two sons who are both students at the University of Texas: John, 23, and Alex, 21.

Pellett wasted no time getting to know the local horticulture scene.

The day after they unpacked, Pellett wandered over to the nearby Memphis Pink Palace Museum where he met Larry Wilson, then a botanist and native plant enthusiast who had designed an oxbow lake exhibit at the museum.

While searching for herbs to plant in his yard, he met Karl Kaestle, owner of the old Four Fives Nursery on Summer Avenue. Kaestle, who died in 2000, was revered as one of the area's most outstanding plantsmen.

The two plant lovers hit it off so well that Pellett went to work part-time at the nursery, soaking up as much knowledge from Kaestle as he could.

The mid-1980s was a time when gardeners were beginning to rediscover perennials and native plants. Pellett was in the forefront of the trend.

"Perennials had a reputation for being too much work and you couldn't find many in local nurseries," he said.

On his quest to identify the best plants for this region, Pellett turned the front yard of his house in the Cooper-Young area into a laboratory for growing many different kinds.

"I learned about everything in that garden," he said

He came to realize it was foolish for humans to try to attain their own ideas of perfection in the garden. When you plant perennials and re-seeding annuals, it's better, he said, to allow the plants to take the lead once they are established. They will rearrange themselves in much more pleasing ways.

When McDonnell, a customer at Four Fives, was beginning to develop her garden, she asked Kaestle who she might hire to help her with the design. Kaestle recommended Pellett.

"Mr. Kaestle was enthusiastic about him, so I hired him," she said. "I count myself lucky."

Getting the McDonnell garden as his first design job was incredibly fortunate for Pellett. McDonnell is the kind of a hands- on gardener Pellett enjoys working with.

"My whole approach is to design so the client gets what he or she wants the most," he said. "It's not my garden. It's theirs."

A few of his clients are away for most of the summer, so he designs their gardens to peak in months when they are home to enjoy it.

For others, he designs beds with flowers that produce white and cool-color blooms in the summer.

"Gardeners and I seem able to understand each other," Pellett said.

Both know plants need time to grow and a garden needs time to mature.

"My forte is not instant gardens," Pellett said.

When he comes across a new idea for a garden, he'll share it with the person he thinks will most appreciate it.

He had a feeling Linda Hill would love the New England custom of building whimsical fairy houses in gardens and natural areas.

She latched on to the idea and created half a dozen or more in her East Memphis garden.

He also knows all gardeners like to see what other people are doing in their yards, so he occasionally leads a group of clients and gardening friends on informal tours of each other's gardens.

He freely shares his expertise by speaking to plant societies and other gardening groups.

"If we listen to him and pay attention to what he says, we'll all be better gardeners," Little said.

For a list of plants Pellett recommends for this area, go to commercialappeal.com and click on this story.

Chris Gang, a freelance writer, retired after 33 years writing food and gardening features for The Commercial Appeal. You can reach her at her Web site: midsouthgardens.com.


"He's an artist, an intellectual and a plantsman. He brings all of those talents together in his garden designs."

Dale Skaggs, University of Tennessee extension horticulturist speaking of Tom Pellett

"My whole approach is to design so the client gets what he or she wants the most. "

Tom Pellett

Garden designer and artist

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