By Suzanne Labry
here is something Zen-like about the way Tom Spencer moves through his garden. Wearing a large-brimmed hat and carrying a pair of garden shears, Spencer — the longtime host of the weekly Public Television series, Central Texas Gardener — seems in total harmony with his surroundings. He delights in the sight of a Gulf fritillary butterfly alighting on a passion vine and then casually trims an aggressive twining branch from the same plant, his mind and body equally engaged.
People garden for different reasons, and there are probably as many reasons as there are gardeners. Tom Spencer gardens because it puts him in touch with the divine in nature and at peace with himself.
There is a playful reverence about the way Tom describes his garden that marks it as a deeply personal space — one made up of self-revelatory aspects and full of symbolism. The various long-view corridors that he has incorporated into his .4-of-an-acre space harken back to his childhood in Duchess County, New York, in the Hudson River Valley, where his family’s hillside home allowed spectacular vistas of the surrounding countryside. The “stroll garden” format, raked sand area, set stones and water feature are elements inspired by a trip to Japan and a long-held admiration for Japanese gardens, informed by a love of haiku. “Possumhaw Hollow,” a small garden grotto formed by possumhaw hollies (Ilex decidua), is a sanctuary used for reflection and morning coffee. The native plants found throughout the garden have as much a personal purpose as a practical one, in that they recall the time in his life when Tom first came to Texas. The allée of bald cypress trees echoes the natural streambeds of the Texas Hill Country that he now calls home. A Greek key labyrinth, so called because the square pieces sticking out in the pattern look rather like a key, provides a space for spiritual meditation. And on it goes, each planting and design feature imbued with significance.
“When I give classes on landscape design, I always tell people to create spaces that are meaningful to them,” says Tom. “I tell them to remember their favorite place as a child — a place where they found comfort or felt safe, and then use that as a starting point for their garden.” Clearly, he follows his own advice.
Tom says that he grew up in a garden. His parents both loved gardening, and their home, a former apple orchard, was planted with lilacs and roses, and surrounded by forests. He has fond memories of going to nurseries with his mother to pick out annuals for their flowerbeds. Every Saturday morning, he and his parents listened to “The Dutch Gardener,” a call-in radio show. Tom remembers thinking then that having his own gardening radio show would be a great job to have. That seed of thought came to fruition in 1983, when Tom began hosting the Austin-based radio station KLBJ’s The Greenthumb Hour. He’s been doing it ever since.
But earlier, when his Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Texas at Austin didn’t afford him an abundance of employment opportunities, Tom had decided to see the world. To earn the money he needed for an extended tour of Europe, he moved to Houston, where he found a job in a local nursery. There he learned the rudiments of landscape design and soon began freelancing as a landscape designer. After a couple of years, he moved back to Austin to work on his Masters degree at UT, and began a work/study program at the local PBS television affiliate, KLRU. He became a producer after three months, realized that he’d found his dream job, quit school and never looked back, forging an award-winning career that has spanned more than two decades.
Tom has landscaped just about every place he’s lived, even taking over the grounds of the condominium complex where he resided for many years. When he bought his current home nine years ago, the potential for creating his dream garden was an overriding factor in the site selection. Finally he found what he was looking for, but it took a seasoned gardener’s eye to spot the pearl in the oyster, so to speak. “The place was a jungle,” recalls Tom. “We removed over 60 trash trees and a thick stand of bamboo. Since then we’ve planted 70 trees — the ones we want, where we want them.” Knowing that good soil is the key to any garden, he swore that he’d start with a clean slate, eventually incorporating 35 dump-truck-loads of compost, mulch and granite gravel into his long, relatively narrow yard.
Tom’s landscape plan was based on the geometric style of classical European gardens using lots of structure softened through plantings. Although his design was formal in nature, he did not want it to be rigid. “My geometry was basically circles and straight lines — I connected the dots,” he says. “I call it a European geometric garden with an Asian, Texas-native overlay.”
Entry to the garden from the house is through a raised-circle seating area formed when Tom removed a low, dark “creepy” porch, two rotten decks and what he calls a “Charlie’s Angels hot tub.” From there, the garden is laid out on a grid of pathways that graciously invite an exploratory stroll. Surprises and delights await discovery: a “cat porch” that allows favorite pets to enjoy the garden on their own terms, a sculpture on loan from an artist friend, a conversation nook tucked away in a leafy alcove, garden rooms formed by five kinds of boxwood, benches on which to be still and listen to birdsong and insect patter.
An acclaimed writer and photographer, Tom is inspired by his garden. His Web site, Soul of the Garden (http://www.soulofthegarden.com/), which won the 2007 Mouse and Trowel Award, is subtitled “Exploring the Garden of Life from an Austin Garden.” His often close-up photographs are intimate and lyrical, and frequently feature subjects from his own yard. His blog, The Daily Muse, gives further insight into his approach to gardening:
“We do not create gardens as places to simply pass through, and God help us, I hope we don’t consider them as drive-by ornaments. Instead, gardeners create spaces that they long to be with. We hunger for places that bring us closer to ourselves, and yet, empty us of self — where the boundaries, categories, and definitions of our lives blur and fall away. Our garden seats, our places of meditation, offer us the sanctuary and rest that our own consciousness denies us.” — The Daily Muse, August 22, 2000
Tom Spencer certainly seems to have created his garden as just such a space.