Life of a Gardener

Friends and memoirs recount Ryan Gainey's legacy as the uniquely flamboyant father of Decatur horticulture

October 11, 2016

In the heart of summer, Decatur lost its patron saint of gardening, Ryan Gainey.

Gainey, born and raised in rural South Carolina, made Decatur his home for the better part of 30 years and endeared himself to the community.

Community garden manager Ruby Bock feels that Gainey’s contributions to the horticultural scene in Decatur were immense.

“He was very generous in sharing his garden,” Bock said. “Ryan was our little claim to fame, a nationally known garden designer from right down the street.”

Among his closest friends in Decatur was Julia Levy, who met Gainey through her involvement in the Decatur Preservation Alliance.

Gainey contacted the Alliance with the intention of seeing his own garden made into a lasting monument for Decatur.

“While we were working on our project with the Woodlands Garden, Ryan got in touch with us about leaving his garden to the city,” Levy said.

Levy’s friendship with Gainey developed when she undertook the task of helping Gainey compile his life story, an endeavor that would take 6 months to complete.

“Ryan was a great storyteller,” she said. “After listening to him talk about his past, I decided I wanted to sit down with him and work on his memoirs.”

Levy also ascribes the inspiration of many Atlanta artisans to Gainey, many of whom produce work in fields unrelated to horticulture.

“He was a mentor to many people people who’ve become famous garden designers and landscape architects in Atlanta.” she said. “Ryan loved handwork.  He was a patron to all sorts of craftsmen.”

After a tree fell on Gainey’s house in Decatur, he made the decision to move to his 1850s cabin in Lexington, GA.

Tragically for Gainey and all who cherished him, his idyllic country home would prove to be his last.

“He was out in his backyard gardening,” she said. “He turned around and the cabin was on fire.”

Gainey had left his stove on. The dry cabin rapidly went up in flames, she said.

Heartbreakingly, it wasn’t just his cabin at stake. His dogs were trapped inside, and Gainey was compelled to rush to their rescue.

“It was an awful accident,” Levy said, “but he loved his dogs. He was attached to them, and I don’t know many people who can say they’d do what he did.”

“He was a real character,” she said. “He was never afraid to be exactly who he was. He was as strong willed as anyone. He was incredibly studious and a great intellectual when it came to garden design. He knew the Latin name of every plant that ever lived. He taught so much to so many people. He brought color into a lot of people’s lives. It is such a great loss that he’s not here anymore – there’s no one like him.”

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A swansong fitting for Gainey comes in the form of the ending poem in one of his books, The Gathered Garden:

He’s pollinated all of our minds with his spell,

Its a sickness from which we don’t want to get well,

He planted himself in all our lives,

And our love for him will ensure that he thrives.

— Lisa Clarke

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