By Rebecca Bingham | Photography courtesy of Mark Fonville and Bill Ridlehoover
Helping people become aware of beauty in the ordinary has been P. Allen Smith’s calling for more than 17 years with his PBS series “Garden Home.”
When it comes to American gardens and design, P. Allen Smith is a household name. But few fans know where the moniker originated. “I am actually a ‘junior,’ named after my father, Paul Allen,” Smith explains. “When I enrolled in college, the registrar added a first initial to make the distinction. My grandmother, however, always said the P stands for ‘potential’.”
A long-time ambassador for conservation and stewardship, Smith uses his 500-acre Arkansas estate at Moss Mountain Farm as a backdrop, studio and laboratory for two television programs: “P. Allen Smith’s Garden Home,” now entering its 17th season on PBS and “Garden Style,” his syndicated show.
“We absolutely love having visitors. It’s what gives everything here a purpose. In fact, I can’t imagine having the farm without sharing it,” he says. “Our hope is when we welcome guests with our brand of genuine hospitality, they will disconnect from their problems and really reconnect with beauty and ideas that will inspire them long after they leave.”
Smith’s personal passions for gardening, design, green building, heritage poultry and sustainable living emerged from a childhood spent on a middle-Tennessee farm. “What I remember most is the openness of freedom that comes from living in ‘wildness’ – wandering through the woods, running in the fields, swimming in creeks – all without worry. I believe this sort of grounding helps us discover our authentic self so that we can become more comfortable expressing who we really are.”
Authenticity is a predominant theme at Smith’s farm, which dates to 1840. “I’ve always felt history provides important context; it serves as a barometer, a North Star. Two remarkable art teachers helped me understand how the arch of history affects fine arts in general – sculpture, architecture, music, painting, poetry – and my personal expression of art, in particular.”
Eventually, while attending graduate school in England, Smith began to see more clearly how design could honor the spirit of a place by directing the energy of objects to reflect harmony and tranquility.
“I would like to be remembered for helping people become more aware of the beauty in the ordinary as a pathway to contentment, which in itself, is a joyous thing,” he says. “Nature is a good place to start.”
This philosophy influenced Smith’s decision to pattern Moss Mountain after the 18th century English garden concept of ferme ornee, meaning “ornamented farm.” Multiple garden “rooms” comprise a mix of annuals, herbs, perennials, roses, shrubs and ornamental grasses. “Nothing thrives alone,” says Smith. “Each area is a micro-ecosystem, contributing to the health of everything around it.”
This month, the farm opens for touring with a showy blanket of 400,000 daffodils, 150 varieties of which bloom in cascading sequence through May. Beyond the flower gardens – which include The Hidden Rose Garden inspired by Lady Elizabeth Ashbrook’s Arley Hall in Cheshire, England – are orchards filled with heritage apple trees, stone fruit and blueberries, a one-acre vegetable garden, a bluebird trail and wildflower fields. A variety of outbuildings, from barns to mobile chicken houses, populate the grounds and surrounding pastures.
Smith’s residence, called Garden Home, is modeled after an 1840s Greek Revival farmhouse, and anchors the estate. Built new in an eco-friendly manner, the home overlooks the Arkansas River to the rear and is shaded by a 350-year old “Big Sister Oak” in front of the house.
“In preparing to design our home, we visited historic properties within a 175-mile radius. Among these were the Hunt Phelan mansion in Memphis – where we measured the window and door surrounds – plus two additional houses in Arkansas: Washington and Little Rock.”
Lunch Tours at Moss Mountain include a tour of the main house, plus tours of the vegetable, rose and terrace gardens, as well as Poultryville.
Chickens are a big deal at Moss Mountain Farm, mostly because of Smith’s commitment to promote healthy living and sustainability. “By 2050, the planet will be bulging with an additional two billion people, on top of the 7.6 billion we have now. Seed banks like those located in Norway, England and Colorado will play an important role in feeding the world’s population by preserving the biodiversity necessary to protect crops against disease. Efforts to preserve 60 heritage breeds of poultry will support the growing need for healthy sources of protein.
“Right now, though, we enjoy sharing practical tips for raising chickens at our poultry workshops. I’m always pleased when visitors remark how beautiful the chickens are – which helps to explain why they were historically called ‘flowers of the barnyard’,” says Smith.
In addition to hosting popular lunch tours by reservation on Thursdays and Fridays, March through June and September through December, Moss Mountain Farm is open to the public for weddings and other special events throughout the year. “We love to collaborate on custom workshops,” says Smith. “We’ve done special sessions on homesteading, making handmade soap, flower arranging and more. If somebody has a special interest, we’re eager to share what we know.”
For more information, visit pallensmith.com/the-farm.