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A famous Decatur gardener died last year. What happened to his house and garden?

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A famous Decatur gardener died last year. What happened to his house and garden?

Ryan Gainey

Ryan Gainey’s home on Emerson Avenue in Decatur. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

This story has been updated. 

Teresa Parrish moved to Emerson Avenue 11 years ago, a quiet street near Adair Park in Decatur.

She met her across-the-street neighbor one day when she was putting bricks around her mailbox.

“He came over and told me I was doing it wrong,” Parrish said. “I laughed and said, ‘What do you mean I’m doing it wrong?’ He told me I should stand the bricks up rather than laying them flat. I asked him how he knew that was the right way. He said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ I said, ‘Yes, you are my neighbor Mr. Gainey.’ He then proceeded to tell me ‘who’ he was and why I should have known that. I think we were friends from that day on.”

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Ryan Gainey was a world-famous Decatur gardener and designer, a gifted eccentric who also loved Jack Russell terriers. The Parrish family got along well with him. He’d let her two boys run wild in his garden and laughed at their antics. He once stored roses in her refrigerator for a wedding he was decorating when he ran out of room in his. They led two different lives. Parrish was a stay-at-home mom and not a gardener. Gainey designed gardens all over the world and constantly toiled in his backyard.

Ryan Gainey

He also owned a property in Lexington, Ga. He was staying there last July when a fire broke out. Gainey rushed inside with a garden hose in an attempt to save his dogs and did not return. Gainey and his dogs died and his Lexington home was destroyed. His home in Decatur was also in bad shape. Earlier in 2016 a large tree fell on it, leaving it uninhabitable.

The fate of Gainey’s house and cottage-style garden – which had been featured on garden tours, in books, magazines, and was used to film “The Odd Life of Timothy” Green in 2011 – became the subject of speculation. A few people suggested the city of Decatur buy it and preserve it in some way. City Manager Peggy Merriss said the city didn’t have the expertise or resources to maintain it properly. She was unsure what had become of the property, as were some of Gainey’s colleagues. There was a rumor that Gainey did not have a will.

He did have a will, in fact. And to Parrish’s surprise, in his will Gainey left his house and cherished garden to her.

“We were a little taken aback by it and excited,” Parrish said.

But why did Gainey leave it to a neighbor who had no gardening experience?

“I’ve asked myself that 100 times,” Parrish said. “I honestly think it’s because he knew I would fight for it, I would fight for it to survive. I think that’s what he saw. I honestly think that Ryan wanted people to remember him and I think that he maybe thought I would make sure that it happened and that it was taken care of.”

Parrish said she intends to restore the home and garden. She plans to move her family into Gainey’s home after adding bedrooms to it and renovating it, keeping its English cottage look. She requested a zoning variance from the city so she could renovate the guest house because it is close to the property line. She plans to restore the garden and greenhouses. Parrish hired a gardener who is a horticulturalist to assist her.

Parrish said one immediate step she took to preserve the gardens was to consolidate the property into one lot to make it harder to subdivide, just in case something happened to her or her husband and the property went on the market. She’s also considering securing a historic designation for the property.

And yes, there will be opportunities to tour the garden. It will be on the Atlanta Botanical Garden tour next year, she said, and she’s considering other ways the community can enjoy Gainey’s legacy. She recalled how Gainey arranged tours through his back yard.

“He had that bucket out,” she said. “He said, ‘If you put money in the can I might let you walk through the garden.’ He was very Ryan about it.”

Parrish said she knows people have questions and concerns about the future of the property. She said her plan is to be a caretaker of Gainey’s home. She’s learning how to be a gardener, and comes home stinking of pond water, covered head to toe in poison ivy and, “so dirty I didn’t think I’d ever be clean again.” She remembered seeing Gainey constantly busy in his yard and wondered what he was up to. Now she knows. “Gardening is hard. It is not for the faint of heart. It’s not for the lazy.”

“It’s been a wonderful change in my life, and it’s given me something to look forward to besides being a parent, something I never knew I would love and I do,” she said.

She said her family realizes they have an important responsibility to honor their friend. “It’s important to us his legacy live on through us.”

Parrish hopes her passion for preserving Gainey’s memory shines through and that the people who knew Gainey will approve.

“I hope they will come back in a year and see the garden and say, ‘Gee you’ve done Ryan proud and he’d be happy in his decision.'”

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