HUNTERSVILLE – It was created little by little. One early morning project at a time. One frog garden ornament that couldn’t be left on the store shelf. A yellow mum at The Home Depot calling out for a new home.
When Huntersville resident John-Palmer Smith bought his home 21 years ago, he had some projects in mind but no detailed master plan for remodeling his backyard. Now, it is hard to imagine that his backyard garden used to be a few trees surrounded by brush.
“I’d rather be outside than inside,” Smith said, explaining that he spends most mornings in his garden. He often is weeding and watering, but sometimes just relaxes with a cup of coffee and a book.
Even in the heat of July, the view from the deck is a vibrant mosaic of lush vegetation. Blue green hostas soak in the deep shade created by towering Leyland cypresses, and clusters of golden black-eyed Susans surround the wooden deck. Walking down the brown, faux-stone path, the source of the tinkling sound of water becomes apparent – a koi pond with a small waterfall feature and green lily pads.
While Smith has garden decorations sprinkled throughout the yard ranging from birdbaths to windchimes, there is an obvious frog theme. He explained his love of frogs stems from a high school prank when he caught a frog, tied a string to its leg and paraded it down the school hallway. He got in trouble, but his girlfriend at the time found it funny and bought him a wooden frog as a gift. According to Smith, his friends kind of associated him with frogs after that, and he started collecting them.
Since he moved to Huntersville, gardening has become his hobby. Almost every aspect of the backyard, Smith has done himself. He dug out the pond, which he said holds about 1,800 gallons of water. He did have someone come install the waterfall feature, but he did all the stone work around it. The concrete path that winds throughout the garden he poured using a mold to make the stone pattern.
“It is not like he had an army of people out there doing it for him. If he wants a pond, he picks up a shovel and digs it,” said Ginger Mock, a friend of Smith’s. “He doesn’t brag about any of it, and yet we were just floored. He did that himself. That is incredible if you think about it.”
Smith however doesn’t view himself as a gardener and was surprised that Mock thought what he had created was special. He explained that growing up in Oklahoma, his dad was a devoted vegetable gardener, but he never had an interest as a kid. He has attended a handful of workshops, but a lot of what he has learned has been through experimentation.
“I just putter around out here,” he said. “I try things, and when they don’t work, I move them.”
Smith said that gardening is an outlet for his creativity. An artist at heart, he retired five years ago from a long career as a musician. Smith was an organist and choir director at multiple churches in the area, including First United Methodist Church in Charlotte and Davidson United Methodist Church.
“If it is creative, I like to do it,” Smith said. “If it is not creative, I’m bored.”
Mock called Smith “a Renaissance man” and finds his music as impressive as his gardening.
“He is an absolutely marvelous musician,” Mock said. “It just takes your breath away the way he plays his organ and piano.”
Smith said that his garden has changed over the years as he has moved and added various plants and garden ornaments that he likes to buy from local stores such as Dearness Gardens, White House Gardens, Ace Hardware and Uncommon Scents. He also said he has a soft spot for “rescue plants” and always drops by Lowes and Home Depot to save the neglected, dying plants that are being sold cheap. He looks for bargains and usually tries to buy smaller plants.
“I go small and just be patient,” Smith said.
For now, Smith said “his paradise” is the way he likes it, but he will not say no if he runs across the perfect fountain.