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Second Nature

Cultivating Beauty in Every Season with Dale Skaggs

Article by Kit Garrott

Photography by Sarah Bell, Sélavie Photography

Originally published in River City Lifestyle

The Dixon Gallery and Gardens embodies the harmonious blend of art and nature – a beacon for artists, a year-round event hub and a harbinger of generational memories.  At the helm of its horticultural endeavors is Dale Skaggs. With a passion for the natural world, Dale is instrumental in the innovation, growth and design of the gardens as the Director of Horticulture. We enjoyed exploring the gardens with Dale and learning about his design philosophy, favorite plants and the challenges and triumphs of managing such a dynamic landscape.

During Dale's 17 years at the Dixon he has poured his time, knowledge and love into the gardens. As we strolled together, it was apparent that Dale is at home here. He gently touched plants and pointed out blooms we passed, noting the origins and reasons for the placement without pause all while sharing insights into where he continually draws inspiration. His educational background at Oregon State University profoundly influences his design approach.

"Inspiration is never a problem; it is more reining in the possibilities that work with your site. We have so many contacts with other public gardens, plant breeders, plant collectors and plant vendors. My profession is not really a job but a lifestyle," Dale remarks. He finds joy in the endless possibilities. 

Dale's lifestyle is filled with European hornbeams, tulips and calycanthus. "My inspiration is found in nature and the outdoors. Understanding plant ecology and natural systems is a treasure trove of ideas, especially when it intersects with the human element," Dale remarks. The average garden visitor enjoys the sculptures and current blooms, the elements that immediately strike our senses. Dale, however, points out the specific strains of ferns, formations of boxwoods and the smells of certain trees. His deep connection to and understanding of every flower, tree and plant in the gardens reveals his sixth sense for the natural world.

"I spend my free time reading about and exploring garden designs and plants. Gardening as an art form is not static but ever-changing and inextricably linked to the site. You can get ideas, but no two gardens are alike. We read multiple gardening publications and attend as many conferences and presentations as we can. I also love the travel my position affords me."

Dale is on a constant quest to understand the natural world a bit better with every passing season as nature continues to keep us on our toes. "This year, we had the azaleas, the dogwoods, the tulips and the daffodils all blooming in concert together, which has never happened before," Dale remarks. A deep frost or early heat wave can impact the gardens for years. 

"There is constant flux in the plant world, especially now as the climate is changing. There are trends in the gardening world that seem to be on about 15 to 20-year cycles. Currently, native plants are very popular, which is great; however, they are not a panacea. I went to school in Oregon where I learned not to discriminate against a plant based on its ethnic origins. I learn most from the people around me."

Dale's work is not a solitary endeavor. He leads a team of six and a dedicated group of volunteers whose collective efforts and ideas are the lifeblood of the gardens. "Our greatest source of inspiration is our volunteers. We have a cadre of dedicated gardeners constantly bringing us ideas for new plants or ways to use much-loved plants."

Yet, it's not all roses and tulips. The daily gardening grind is peppered with unpredictable challenges. "The unexpected is part of the job on a day-to-day basis. We try to plan our day/week/month/year, and something always happens that we didn't foresee," Dale notes. The daily challenges are ever-present, from fallen limbs to faulty irrigation systems. "A tree will lose a major limb, we'll have a leak in our irrigation system, a cooler in the greenhouse will fail, a tractor will break down," he recounts. Nature, after all, runs on its own schedule. 

Throughout the year, the Dixon's gardens boast a quarter million tulips or bountiful azaleas, providing visitors with a memorable Memphis experience carefully cultivated by Dale and his team. Whether you visit in the height of spring or crisp air of fall, Dale says, "Anytime you're visiting a garden, someone will say, 'Well, you should have been here last week.'"

Dale Skaggs - Director of Horticulture

Dale's Other Interests

"I'm very interested in French wine.  My interest started with Viticulture at Oregon State University, where the fickle pinot noir grape grows so well. My focus on French wines is burgundy, where the Pinot Noir grape also dominates red wine production. It is such a delicate grape, and in Burgundy, France, it is the vineyard that is classified, not the chateaux or winemaker who is blending grapes. This really lets what the French call "terroir" shine through. Most of the white production in this region is Chardonnay, which is also delicate and expresses uniquely where it is grown. You can actually taste the differences depending on the vineyard it is from due to differences in weather, soils, and very small local nuances. "

"I also enjoy fly fishing, training my bird dog, Rook, going to the climbing gym and biking."