Dr. William E. “Bill” Barrick is an expert on garden plants and design, but he’s also a believer that gardens are places for people as much as for plants. That belief has constantly informed his 40-plus year career as an award-winning horticulturist and public garden director, first at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., and then at the 65-acre historic Bellingrath Gardens and Home in Theodore, Ala. As he prepares to retire in July after 18 years as Bellingrath’s executive director, he looked back on the path that first led him to gardens and to making Bellingrath a major Gulf Coast tourist destination that attracts 110,000 visitors from across the globe each year. – Katie Jackson
I grew up in Dothan, Ala., and was surrounded by neighbors who were avid gardeners. One of my neighbors was even named Mrs. Flowers and she had a fulltime gardener named George and her own greenhouse where she grew flowers for her home and garden. Another neighbor was an FBI agent who hybridized daylilies as a hobby. My third-grade teacher’s father lived in our neighborhood and hybridized camellias. But perhaps the greatest influence on my life was my grandfather, who took care of a two-acre vegetable garden until the age of 100, so I caught the gardening bug at an early age.
What drew you to it as a career and kept you in it?
I attended Auburn University, majoring in botany for my undergraduate degree, and received a master’s degree in horticulture two years later. After a two-year stint in the Army, I attended Michigan State University, where I received my Ph.D in landscape horticulture, then I taught at the University of Florida for four years before going to work at Callaway Gardens, which began my career in public gardens. My career at Callaway was an exciting time and, over the years, I was part of the design team that led to the construction of the John A. Sibley Horticulture Center, the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center and the new Brothers’ Azalea Garden.
How does managing Bellingrath Gardens compare with managing Callaway Gardens?
In some sense, managing both gardens is quite similar as both share a legacy of having visionary founders and both have an emphasis on display, rather than on maintaining documented collections of woody plants. The major difference from a career standpoint was that my emphasis at Callaway was on creating new garden amenities for our visitors, while at Bellingrath my emphasis has been on garden restoration. While a major emphasis at Callaway was growing and displaying native species of Southeastern flora, the majority of plantings in Bellingrath Gardens — camellias and azaleas — have their origin in the Orient.
Bellingrath Gardens and Home are located in a hurricane-prone part of the state. How have storms such as Hurricane Frederic and others affected the estate?
I don’t have a personal knowledge of the efforts required for rebuilding Bellingrath after Frederic — which struck on Sept. 12, 1979, and closed the Gardens and Home until March 1, 1980 — but I can fully appreciate the efforts required to remove virtually all of the downed tree canopy. Overnight, the Gardens transitioned from the deep shade provided by the live oak canopy to a full sun garden, so the Gardens essentially had to be replanted with azaleas and camellias along with restoring the tree canopy. Fortunately, in my tenure, Hurricanes Rita, Ivan and Katrina did minor damage by comparison to Frederic.
How do you prepare for storms today?
With modern-day weather forecasting, hurricane preparation is much easier, but the Bellingrath Home, Boehm Gallery and Chapel have to be boarded up to prevent damage to these buildings, or to the Bessie Morse collection of antique furniture, porcelains and silver. Typically, the gardeners move planters, hanging baskets and cast-iron furniture to safer locations.
What do gardens such as Bellingrath provide to community and to humanity?
Throughout my career in public horticulture, I have been made fully aware of the value of public gardens. Increasingly through technology and the pace in which we all live, we are separated from nature. Gardens offer visitors the opportunity to restore their souls and be inspired by the beauty of God’s creation. We are called to be stewards of God’s creation and, in the case of Bellingrath, to be inspired by our founders’ vision and their generosity to preserve part our state’s cultural heritage.
What are you planning after retirement? Are there other gardens in your future?
Jessica and I plan on continuing to live in Mobile, but she is hopeful we will spend more time in Asheville, N.C., where she grew up. Both of us want to continue to serve in other cultural organizations, too. The gardens in our future will be ones we visit as we love to travel and see other public and private gardens. And, I hope, my back will allow me to garden, for a change, in my own back yard.ν