‘A garden we call Eden’ – Famous Decatur garden designer Ryan Gainey remembered
By Mariann Martin, contributor
Ryan Gainey was a world-famous garden designer, a poet and a writer, a man who could weave almost magical spells over plants and flowers.
But at his memorial on Wednesday night, his friends and family remembered him for his love, his kindness, his passion for life, and the way he touched and changed every person he met
“He gave us so much of his time and talents; he pushed to make us better,” said Brooks Garcia, Gainey’s former personal assistant and a close friend.
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Gainey, 72, died on July 29 while trying to save his Jack Russell terriers from a fire at his second home in Lexington, Ga. He also owned a home and garden in Decatur.
Friends walked into the memorial service carrying small bunches of flowers — sunflowers, pink roses, wild asters, and dozens of other varieties. They shared memories, laughter and tears for more than an hour, hundreds filling the Atlanta History Center’s McElreath Hall.
His closest friends told stories about Gainey’s unique personality and his flair for theater and drama. He talked to everyone he met and had hundreds of people he called on a regular basis.
Garcia described how Gainey would call him, often many times a day. Sometimes if Garcia didn’t answer, he would keep on calling.
Garcia would finally pick up the phone in annoyance. “What makes you think I would pick up the phone the sixth time if I didn’t pick it up the first five times,” he would demand.
“You just did,” Gainey would respond.
“He was a brilliant, romantic, creative genius,” Garcia said. “I loved him dearly.”
Alex Smith, another close friend, first came to work for Gainey as an intern. After telling his parents many stories about his larger-than-life boss, he took them over to meet Gainey one day.
Gainey was focused on a task, barely looking up and continuing to work as Smith introduced his parents.
“Alex is not very centered,” Gainey muttered to his guests.
“My poor mother was crushed,” Smith said. However, the two went on to become good friends, and apparently she forgave him for insulting her son.
“He truly was one of the most caring, kind, gracious, funny, irreverent, impossible people you ever met,” Smith said.
A close neighbor and friend, Peter Lindsay, described weekend drives around Atlanta with Gainey. Gainey knew every bush, tree and plant along the streets. Even though Lindsay didn’t know much about plants, he soon developed a love and understanding for them through Gainey’s passion.
As they drove, Gainey would sometimes order Lindsay to stop the car. He’d jump out and come back in a few minutes proudly bearing a plant or flower he had dug up on the side of the road.
“That came from someone’s yard,” Lindsay would indignantly point out.
“Well, they don’t know what they have and they certainly don’t deserve it,” Gainey would retort.
Lindsay also shared the story of a routine he and Gainey developed when they went shopping together. Lindsay would wander off in search of some item and come back to find Gainey holding court with strangers, regaling them with tales.
“Gainey, I thought your parole date wasn’t for another two months,” Lindsay would exclaim.
Lindsay would then turn to the bewildered strangers and say, “I’m sure he told you he was a world-famous gardener.”
Gainey loved every minute of it.
“People couldn’t resist Ryan,” Lindsay said.
“The world just got a lot less fun,” he added, his voice breaking as he remembered the good times they had together.
At the end of the memorial, a video tribute was shown that included excerpts from a documentary film about Gainey. Steve Bransford and Cooper Sanchez are making the film.
Gainey talked about growing up on a farm and picking cotton in South Carolina. He came to Atlanta “without a penny” and opened up a florist shop.
The film showed him walking across the field with his three dogs as he went to work among his plants.
“Every plant has a story, just like every human being has a story,” Gainey said in the film.
Gainey’s Decatur home has been featured in the Decatur Garden Tour, not to mention numerous books and magazines, according to Gainey’s website.
Film crews took over his home in 2011 to shoot the Disney movie “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.”
According to his biography on his website, Gainey grew up in Hartsville, South Carolina and studied Ornamental Horticulture at Clemson University. He later received an honorary doctorate in letters from Coker College in Hartsville.
Gainey also owned Ryan Gainey & Company and designed gardens all over the world. Notable projects include the Visitor’s Center and garden at the South Carolina State Botanical Garden at Clemson University.
A poem by Ryan Gainey shared at his memorial:
Life is a picture puzzle
Each day of our lives is a piece of that puzzle
Death is the final piece that completes the picture
Eternity is putting those pieces together again
Heaven is that puzzle becoming complete
The picture is a garden we call Eden
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