Skip to main content

The legacy of an eminent landscape architect lives on in William Banks’s Georgia garden

  • Author:
  • Updated:


WHEN WILLIAM BANKS gives a tour of his Georgia estate garden, the word “inevitable” crops up in conversation more often than the chickweed that invades his tulip beds each spring. It's inevitable, he says, as visitors move from one garden room to another, that they “will be surprised, though not confused, by what lies around the corner.” That's just how eminent landscape architect William C. Pauley of Atlanta planned it.

And it was inevitable that Banks, whose family established the estate less than an hour south of Atlanta in 1929, would maintain the landscape's bones, even after he tore down the house and moved in an historic home from 100 miles away. Inevitable, too, that Banks would welcome each season in grand style. In spring, for example, he plants masses of colorful annuals that he's grown from seed in a cold frame on the grounds. “I make countless trips every May from the cold frame to the garden to put them in myself,” says Banks, a tall, dapper man who epitomizes the southern gentleman. “It's my least favorite job in the garden.”

Yet for Banks, the traditions associated with gardening, with the family homestead, and with southern gentility are worth preserving. A writer, historian, and antiques authority, Banks savors the past as much as the three resident deer do his roses. And springtime at Bankshaven, some 280 acres near Newnan, Georgia (USDA Zone 7), is quite a feast. Thousands of tulips—red ‘Parade’, yellow ‘Golden Parade’, and snowy ‘White Triumpha-tor’—spread a quilt across the flower garden's beds in a salute to renewal rivaling the set of a Broadway musical. Yoshino cherries put up their snowy umbrellas over dark green boxwoods, flush with new growth. Banks of white and pink azaleas—‘Mrs. G. G. Gerbing’ and ‘Pink Pearl’—line the winding driveway like giant tufts of cotton candy.

Red ‘Parade’ and yellow ‘Golden Parade’ tulips add a bright set of repeating notes to the ivy-draped walls bordering the formal flower garden.

The drive ends in a circle at what used to be the front of the house. When Banks replaced his parents’ Tudor house with a Federal-style one in 1970, he positioned the second home so that it faces a small lake once known as Pearl Springs, a popular recreation spot with church groups in the early 1900s. After purchasing the property, his father, the late William Banks Sr., hired Pauley, the first landscape architect licensed in Georgia and designer of downtown Atlanta's Hurt Park, to create a plan for the grounds. Typical of grand estates, Pauley's design placed formal gardens close to the house, leaving outlying areas largely untouched and creating natural vistas. By placing the present house in the original's footprint, the younger Banks left his family's garden undisturbed.

A tour of the gardens begins at the front of the house. There, a wide veranda overlooks an oak-shadowed lawn where a peacock named Susie with a sweet tooth for Fig Newtons struts her colorful stuff. The lawn descends to the 18-acre Pearl Lake, creating a grand southern vista. Across the lake, dogwoods and redbuds light up the woods in spring.

Banks first fell in love with the house when he visited it in 1958. It was then located in the Georgia hamlet of Haddock, about an hour east of Atlanta. Abandoned for years, the house, built in 1828, was designed by New England architect and builder Daniel Pratt. Years later, after purchasing a home in Temple, New Hampshire, Banks began to research the town's history. Imagine his surprise when he discovered that Pratt, who eventually moved to the South, was one of Temple's native sons. When the Georgia house became available in the late 1960s, Banks had to have it. In 1968, following the death of his father, he had the house moved to Coweta County, where, with his mother's blessing, he razed the old house and replaced it with the Federal one. The gardens went untouched.

“The preservation of the garden at Bankshaven is remarkable,” says Spencer Tunnell, an Atlanta landscape architect who specializes in historic sites."The landscape had grown in such a way that it needed a more appropriate home to grace it.”

Most of the gardens are grouped in a series of formal spaces to the east of the house. Pauley created five primary areas, which, with the exception of seasonal annuals and the perennials that Banks has added over the years, have remained the same for more than 70 years. “Gardens change throughout time, but this is pretty much how [Pauley] planned it,” Banks says.

Closest to the house is a garden in which the centerpiece is a nine-foot-tall fountain that Banks acquired from a north Georgia estate. A three-tiered Italian piece carved from Carrara marble in the 1840s, the fountain had sat idle for decades with two cracked basins. Banks had them repaired, and today the fountain features dolphins and a lion that spout water, luring visitors into the boxwood-enclosed space with a tranquil trickle. A pair of treelike peegee hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’) marks the entry to the garden, where in spring borders spill with ‘White Triumphator’ tulips, followed in summer by white impatiens.

North of this garden is the estates most private space. The entrance this time of year is dramatic: white Lady Banks roses (Rosa banksiae) form a popcorn canopy over a wrought-iron arbor. Another pair of peegee hydrangeas gives this garden a sense of scale, and white ‘Hin-ode-giri’ azaleas enhance the green-and-white scheme.

The next stop forms a sharp contrast to the secluded garden. This refreshingly open space contains a large rectangular swimming pool area bordered by clipped Foster hollies (Ilex xattenuata). At the opposite end stands an unusual focal point—a Venetian poolhouse and pavilion that resembles a tent and is topped with pineapple finials.

An opening in the hedge beckons to a garden with quite a story. Large boxwoods, more than a century old, form a mind-boggling maze, navigated by mossy brick pathways. “My father moved the entire maze here from a cousins garden near Newnan,” Banks says."He numbered the shrubs so that they would be placed correctly here.”

A small, latticed gazebo at one side, flanked by Yoshino cherry trees, entices visitors to a shady retreat for a cup of tea. Four white dogwoods anchor the garden, providing a stark contrast in spring to the dark green boxwoods."More and more, I've decided I like all green and white gardens,” Banks says.

Several of the boxwoods, victims of Georgia's recent drought, were replaced recently with ones comparable in size. This garden funnels visitors into Bankshaven's grand finale: a large, rectangular flower garden surrounded by an ivy-shrouded brick wall. Pauley designed the beds in this formal garden in a geometric pattern. In spring, old-fashioned pale pink and rose peonies—planted by Banks's mother some 50 years ago, and their names long forgotten—form the nucleus surrounding a bronze armillary sphere.

Five beds extending from the center spill with dozens of floribun-da roses, like medium and deep pink ‘Betty Prior’ and ‘Knockout’, that bloom profusely from early May until heavy frost. “With ‘Betty Priors’ you reach a point where you have to be ruthless and cut them,” Banks says. “You just have to grit your teeth.”

Over the years, Banks added borders along the perimeter walls for annuals, which change dramatically from one season to another. Each time, though, four colors dominate: red, yellow, blue, and white. In spring, that means red and yellow tulips, Dutch irises, and daisies. “Mother depended mostly on annuals, but I've tried to work in more and more perennials over time,” Banks notes. His choices have included phlox, asters, irises, and coreopsis.

The effect is a kaleidoscope from late February through November. But with Georgia's long growing season comes the heartache of pests. “We have every disease here known to mankind,” Banks says. “And Japanese beetles are a real headache.” Another of those headaches—three resident deer that munch on the ‘Betty Priors’— recently met a roadblock at Bankshaven—a radio, placed on a timer, that blares music from the nearby poolhouse all night. “t works,” Banks says.

As he heads along a mossy path back up to the front lawn, Banks acknowledges that, even with a part-time staff of five, maintaining a garden this large can be overwhelming."Pauley worked on these gardens until his death, well over 30 years at least,” Banks recalls. “My mother was active in gardening, and my father loved the garden, but neither of them ever worked at it the way I do.”

And work at it he does, growing those hundreds of annuals from seed each spring in the cold frame, then setting out the tiny seedlings in bed after bed. He could save a few steps by purchasing transplants from the nursery, but Banks swears his seedlings perform better. His years of success have proven that to be another inevitability.

FORMAL GARDENS and hybrid tea and grandiflora roses were made for each other. The opulent, high-centered flowers of these roses look best in a formal setting. and. serendipitously, the geometric beds of formal gardens allow easy access for the heavy feeding, watering. and pruning that these roses require.

Because hybrid teas and grandifloras often exhibit unattractive “bare ankles,” it's a good idea to provide them with low-growing companions that won't compete too heavily for water and nutrients. Lavender and catmint (Nepeta Xfaassenii) are traditional choices, but long-blooming, heat-tolerant annuals, such as verbenas or mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea), will also work well.