Dabney Peeples has built a fervent fan base by listening to the land.
Dabney Peeples, a sought-after garden designer for almost 40 years, is going on “a ramble” on his 75-acre property in Easley, as he does every day. And every day, he finds something entirely new.
“This is a very ephemeral art form,” he says, gesturing toward the gardens, ponds, winding paths, wildflower meadows, causeways, muscadine orchards, even a boxwood wandering garden.
He comes across a cedar stump that would give few people pause. But Peeples stops and stares, rapt. “There is a whole world on that,” he marvels at the mossy growth. “Doesn’t that just make you crazy?”
While some garden designers see the natural world as something to upend or tame, Dabney Peeples, founding principal at DabneyCollins, sees something to learn from, to tend, to support. And while listening to the wishes of clients is always top of mind, he listens just as intently to what the land is telling him.
Peeples founded his firm almost 40 years ago and sold it to Kenny Collins 20 years ago, creating DabneyCollins. Kenny Collins is owner and CEO, while Peeples stays highly involved as founding principal. “He’s our guiding spirit,” says Tessa Pinner, creative director. “Whatever project he gets involved with, he makes it better.”
He uses a walking stick as a safeguard against occasional vertigo, but at 68, he’s still working frequently, rambling regularly, and constantly coming up with new ideas and plans—for his clients and for his own plot of land.
“Gardens are never finished,” Peeples says. “Maintaining them—now that’s the big issue. It takes a lot of work to make it look this natural.” He points out hidden retaining walls that help create soft grades. “We do incredibly complex things. The drainage, the irrigation, the footing . . . there’s what you see and what you don’t see. We hired for what you do see, but hired again for what you don’t see.”
While he has successfully brought the vision of many clients to flourishing life, his own property is the ultimate testimony of his philosophy, which he sums up in numerous poetic ways, including: “Nature takes care of itself if you don’t screw it up. As long as we don’t pull a thread out of the web, which people often do.”
Peeples first worked on the garden 40 years ago, when he designed it for a neighbor and friend. Peeples and his partner, Art Campbell, lived next door at the time. “I never dreamed I could live here,” he says. “But twenty years later, we bought it.”
For each project, he loves to maximize the way spaces affect emotions. Creating portals, where people are pulled into an enclosed area that then opens quickly, can create excitement or even exaltation, which evokes feelings of childhood. “We want adults to feel those feelings they had as children,” he says.
He is hesitant to admit it, but he often helps guide his clients in a more sustainable direction, which creates stunning gardens while benefiting the entire ecosystem. Ever humble, he points out that he learns just as much from clients. “They often push me in a direction that I wasn’t planning to go. We do a lot of gardens for gardeners. So that’s one of the best parts of this job—you’re creating something with just a few elements, but it’s new and different.”
In his gardens, he sees bobcats, bears, foxes, coyotes, osprey, eagles, and wood ducks. He has a heron rookery in the swamp, purple martin houses near the pond, and a non-operating chimney in the orchard, just for the endangered chimney swifts to live in.
He encourages native plants like yarrow and penstemon and chickasaw plums to thrive from the historic seed bank buried beneath the ground. He creates thickets so beavers have a place to hide. He created the curved causeway in his pond to maximize edges, “because most of the life happens in the edges,” he says.
He views his property as a wildlife refuge as much as anything else. “That’s what it’s all about, really,” he says. “Just set the table and see who comes.”
Digging into Five of Dabney Peeples’ Greatest Hits
He’s worked on sprawling estates in suburban neighborhoods of varying sizes and numerous historic properties, not to mention entrances to towns and even the entrance to South Carolina before the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. He would never play favorites because every project brings its own gifts, but he reminisced about a few of his most memorable garden projects.
“I waited almost 50 years to design a drool wall, where water drools down. That was a dream, a total dream. I see that sort of environment in the mountains, and there’s just something about it.” The wall at this steep, lakefront property, designed to mimic Blue Ridge Mountain rock faces, has a bog garden at its foot.
Belle Terre in Simpsonville (twice)
Clients became friends at this 38-acre property. “In fact, her cows are on my property. It was just a pasture, and I had started it for a previous client. Then they moved, and I got to design it again to their wishes.” The elaborate landscape included a vineyard, ponds, pastures, and a colonnade of Italian cypress.
Burt Reynolds’ mountain house in Flat Rock
“Burt Reynolds lived there with Loni Anderson. When they sold it, I had to do an 18-foot retaining wall because the new owners wanted a pool, and I’ve yet to figure out how to make water stay on a slope. We designed some massive underground structures.”
The Elders in The Cliffs at Glassy
The garden for clients Chuck and Mary Elder included evergreen hedges, a steeply sloped glen, and two massive stone cairns designed to evoke the feeling of discovery. Peeples likes how cairns, a Celtic tradition, designate a path or spiritually significant change. “When you’re wandering and you come across something massive, it makes you feel different,” he says. “It’s an emotional thing.”
The Hilliards on Crescent Avenue
For friends and fellow gardening enthusiasts Heather and Glenn Hilliard, Peeples created multiple garden rooms, including a secret garden, a fairy garden, a compost area, a bee garden, a potager garden (for vegetables), and a space just for plants native to South Carolina. Even the parking area in front of the home utilizes stones made with petrified lake mud.
The influence of Dabney Peeples
“It’s been a joy to work with Dabney for almost 20 years now, and it feels obvious that his presence in the Greenville area can be seen throughout our community. His impact may be more than most realize.
There is a love for diverse plant material, stone and other natural materials, and historical objects that he has been able to incorporate in very creative ways. Dabney has an extremely good way of articulating his vision. I often would get to tickled at his enthusiasm when he breaks out in a dance, raises his arms, and snaps his fingers at the excitement of creating. If I could go back to the beginning, I would have kept a journal of all the one liners that randomly came out.
I have great respect for Dabney’s creative abilities and have been honored to be a part of his journey, and I look forward to more great gardens.”
—Kenny Collins, owner and CEO, DabneyCollins