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Eric Mack & The Kai Garden

8/12/2022 5:26 pm

Eric Mack - The Kai Garden: 

Profile of an Intown Perennial Grower

 

 

 

The seeds were sown when Eric Mack was young.  Gardening with his father on a vacant dead-end lot in Charleston would instill in him the hopefulness that comes from connecting to the land.  Many years and life transitions would pass before he renewed this connection.

 

Upon first meeting Eric Mack, the owner of the East Lake “pop-up garden” specializing in unusual and rare perennials, you know he is a passionate person.  This passion has taken him on a career path from barber to artist to art teacher, and now, nursery owner and plant enthusiast.

 

The Journey

As a child, Eric was always creating art. He drew breakdancing moves in detail before moving on to painting jeans and clothes.  Next was wearable art in another form — cutting hair.  Eric’s enterprising and gregarious nature led his mother to carve out a part of her Charleston salon for him to run as a barbershop when he was a teenager.  He enjoyed the work. He also discovered that he particularly enjoyed the intimacy of conversation with customers as he plied his craft.

 

Cutting hair was never going to contain Eric’s creativity, however.  At age seventeen, Eric knew he wanted to go further with his art.  He attended the Atlanta College of Art and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts/Illustration.  Afterward,  Eric began to create and show his work, abstract paintings and mixed media, in earnest.

 

Along the way he met his future wife, Malissa. When her job took her to Munich for several years, he joined her for the adventure. Munich and Germany connected him to nature in a different way than he had ever connected. He spent more time outside than ever before, enjoying hiking and European gardens.  

 

When Eric and Malissa returned to Atlanta, a new chapter began.  Eric continued to create art and also began to teach art at the Kipp Strive Primary School, once again combining art with relationships. Then came the unthinkable loss that sent Eric and Malissa reeling. Their newborn son Kai was stillborn. Much as the legendary phoenix rose from the ashes, The Kai Garden was born out of grief.  

 

The Birth of a Garden

 

Eric knew fairly quickly he wanted to plant a tree to memorialize Kai at his East Lake home.  After serious thought, he chose a Japanese maple. The choice was influenced by DNA analysis with Asian ties, which surprised Eric by showing Yakut (Mongolian) heritage along with Irish, British and African ties.  

 

Eric dug the hole and carefully prepared the soil before planting Kai’s tree.  He felt a connection to the earth and the healing power of gardening almost immediately.  Eric soon began digging and planting everywhere around his East Lake home, a one man dynamo.

 

He filled the shelves in his art classroom with plants too, bringing science into art class. After all, “plants possess divine proportions.”  

 

While Eric’s love for gardening was growing, life was busy with art, teaching and then the arrival of a beautiful baby girl.  Then came another life-changing event:  Covid-19.  

 

The classroom closed. Eric emptied the shelves of plants and brought them home.  With extra time on his hands, Eric dove deeper into gardening.  He learned primarily through watching Monte Don’s Gardener’s World on Daily Motion.  

 

Like so many of us that love perennials, he quickly grew bored by the common plant material found in box stores. Nearby nurseries with enough interesting perennials to sate his burgeoning interest just didn’t exist. He turned to mail ordering. He learned, as we all have, that mail order plants are tantalizing, but also very expensive -- not that it stopped him from ordering. Then Eric thought about it.  He had time. He had energy.  And he had a large basement with no important use.  

 

With winter coming, Eric turned to propagating plants and growing from plugs.  What started small at the beginning of Covid-19, grew big. His entire basement is an amazing below ground nursery.  Small greenhouses also curve around one side of the house.

 

Eric credits his understanding wife for both tolerating and supporting his growing habit and passion. He points to his nature as a Pisces; he goes all in on anything he tries. So patient wife Malissa must periodically put her foot down to regain the screen porch and deck for family and friends. Then again, it was her suggestion that Eric consider selling the plants he grew instead of giving them away — to help defray the cost of his growing obsession. Such was the birth of pop-up sales at The Kai Garden.

 

The Kai Garden “Pop-Up Nursery” 

 

 

“Pop-up” sales are public sales held on short notice.  Some are “moveable” and roam town.  Other are in a fixed place, operated like a garage sale with a specific focus, which might be merchandise or food and beverages.  

 

Most of Eric’s sales to date have been at home.  He advertises his sales with eye-catching, homemade lime green signs placed roadside and by posting on social media (particularly Instagram) and then counts on word of mouth.   This year, he also had a well-received booth at the Midtown Garden Stroll.

 

With all that Eric is growing, you may wonder why no “brick and mortar store” is in his near future. The primary reason is his connection to the earth and his son’s memory at home. Then there’s the neighborhood that he loves. These pop-up sales allow him time to connect with customers with similar intimacy to that he enjoyed with customers in the barber chair.  He wants to meet his customer, learn where they garden, their level of experience, and what their soil and sun are like.  He also wants to help bring them along in his passion for plants.  

 

So Eric will, for now, stick with pop-up sales and do private sales.  He’s not ready to change this formula yet, if ever.  He’s even begun to  attract visitors from far outside the neighborhood too!

 

The Plants - Oh, the Plants!

 

 

 

 

 

 

So what does Eric grow?  In addition to a fabulous selection of perennials, he raises a fair number of houseplants, tropicals and succulents.  He observed the success of The Victorian at Ponce City Market and knew he could sell more reasonably to those buyers and maybe entice those who can into balcony or container gardening or even more ambitious gardening down the road.  Bravo, Eric. This was the gateway to gardening for many of us.

 

But on to the perennials!  Just what does Eric carry? The best way to find out is to visit The Kai Garden. It is worth your time and energy, because it is a big list and keeps growing. I don’t think I am going out on a limb to say it is the closest thing you can get to shopping at Plant Delights near metro Atlanta and a good ways further.

 

Here’s another way to frame it.  Do you, like me, often walk away disappointed from nurseries saying, “I have that already” time and again?  Or do you leave empty-handed because nothing at the nursery really inspires you anymore because it is so common or you’ve previously grown it and deemed it a failure or mistake?  If so, you may experience an epiphany at The Kai Garden.  Eric’s got new to market plants, interesting new cultivars of loads of plants, many familiar and some not, and an eye for the rare and unusual.  (For example, I was unaware of Mukgenia ‘Nova Flame’ — a new mix of Mukdenia and Bergenia with flame tipped leaves as pictured in the collage.  That was a certain purchase!)

 

True, you can find a small list of some of his newest material on his website, www.thekaigarden.com, but you’ll be missing a ton if you stop there. You’ll find far more plants with pictures on his instagram account “@thekaigarden.”  Even then, you will not have the full picture.

 

There is so much more to see in person!  Just a few eye-catchers on a recent visits (some pictured above) were: 

 

Acanthus ‘Whitewater’ — a variegated Bear’s Breeches sporting pinkish flowers 

Asclepias curassavica — the tropical milkweed that can extend the monarch feeding season (but should be cut back to the ground for winter)

Baptisia ‘Solar Flare’ (lemon yellow flowers fade to orange) and ‘Pink Lemonade’  (soft yellow flowers fade to pink)

Bletilla ochracea ‘Chinese Butterfly’ — a yellow form of the familiar, easy to grow ground orchid

Caryopteris ‘Pavilion Pink’ - the girliest bluebeard ever with larger, greener leaves than most in the species

Callistemon viridiflorus - a compact form of Australian bottlebrush with light green flowers

Digiplexis - several cultivars including ‘Berry Canary’ and ‘Illumination Flame’ - a hybrid of Foxglove and Digitalis relative from the Canary Islands which is perennial not a “re-seeder” like Foxglove.

Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii' - Hardy red Ethiopian banana — a favorite of Eric’s) for color blending and structure

Epimedium ‘Galadriel’ - pictured above with what looks like a painted pink and white blooms

Eryngium ‘Jade Frost’ - a variegated Sea Holly

Eucomis ‘Maraschino Cherry’ and ‘Safari Adventure’ - both with very colorful flowers in gradations of purple to white

Sedum Atlantis - a striking yellow and white sedum

 

Add to this a literal host of other perennials, many of which are cutting edge cultivars, including Paeonies, Rodgersias, Clematis, Abutilon, Cannas and more.

 

Are These All Perennial Here?

 

Eric, like all true gardeners, is pushing the zone on some plants. He admits this may not all be intentional, though he is game to try for worthy plants. Like other avid gardeners, he is learning that relying on listed zones overpromises success.  

 

Still, more than one plantsman has shown that if a plant is grown for sale in place  — as opposed to grown and shipped from across the country or out of the zone — it ultimately may fare better in that place. The jury is still out on a few plants Eric is growing that I very much want to be able to keep alive to bloom someday.  Kirengeshoma palmata (Yellow Wax Bells), Echium and Rodgersia all have frustrated me. 

 

Some of Eric’s annuals or tropicals might overwinter too, but should be stored if you adore them and can't bear the risk — like the hard to find Cephalaphora aromaticum ‘Pineapples’.  Enterprising perennial gardeners are duty bound to try this stunner, however.  (See picture in top center of collage.)

 

Eric’s Choices and Recommendations

 

So what are Eric’s own favorites?  To bring inside for winter, he adores Caesalpinia Pulcherrima ‘Pride of Barbados’ which bears stunning bright red and yellow azalea shaped blooms in summer to fall.  (Pictured in center of collage above.) He also has a weakness for Epimediums, like ‘Galadriel’ (top left in collage), the Hardy Red Ethiopian banana and Eryngiums too.  And more, oh so many more . . .  He is a plant enthusiast above all else!  

 

All has not been easy for Eric, but he is no quitter when it comes to plants.  He’s faced some disappointments and frustrations, including failed attempts to grow a monkey puzzle tree as well as Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Wilmott’s Ghost’.   

 

As to natives, Eric carries some — especially a nice variety of Asclepias (milkweeds) -_ and recommends them.  However, he suggests the native purists visit Beech Hollow Wildflower Farms (Avondale/Scottdale area), coincidentally operated by an Atlanta College of Art graduate he didn’t know in school. Eric is admittedly into the collector’s plants: the rare, the weird, and the unusual and he will defend the performance of these with pollinators in his yard with zeal. 

 

Amongst his pollinator recommendations:  Eucomis, Asclepias, the compact Butterfly bush — Buddleia ‘Glass Slipper,’  the silver leaved Yarrow which lines his pathway, Baptisia, Polemonium (Jacob’s ladder), and Phlomis.  That’s just a start of a list, of course.  For more of his thoughts, consider a visit. The Kai Garden and welcomes visitors both at pop-up sales and by appointment. 

 

What’s Next?

 

Eric continues to expand his horticultural knowledge on a daily basis, both teaching himself and learning from his customers of varied backgrounds.  He’s trialing more and more plants, including Protea.  

 

Eric also sliding into the next obvious aspect of gardening for him.  He’s begun to help some folks design gardens, bringing his artist’s eye for composition to the task. He can visualize doing more of this in the future. 

 

Otherwise, for now, he’s going to keep on going as is, enjoying the diverse group of neighbors and visitors each sale brings.  He loves the authentic person-to-person vibe, connecting to each other and the earth, and doing so everyday in the company of the memorial to the garden’s namesake, his son Kai.

 

The 411 on Visiting The Kai Garden

 

Contact Eric Mack for an appointment to visit:  (404) 493-9817

 

Or Visit at his pop-up sales advertised on Instagram and when we keep up also noted on Georgia Perennial’s Facebook page.  Eric’s been running one a month this summer. 

 

Instagram: @thekaigarden 

 

Web:  thekaigarden.com 

 

Email: thekaigarden@gmail.com

 

Where is The Kai Garden?

 

2754 Tilson Drive, Atlanta Georgia 30317

 

Parking outside his house is easy.  He’s just north of Memorial Drive close to the East Lake Golf Club.  

 

What else to do while you are in the area?

 

You could make a day of visiting The Kai Garden, the nearby Wylde Center as well as some nearby Decatur gardens like Woodland Gardens or nurseries like Beech Hollow Wildflower Farm (Scottdale) or Andersson Gardens (Avondale - closed until September 1, 2022).  Or veer a little further east into town and stop at Garden*Hood, the only remaining independent nursery in Atlanta city limits (thanks to zoning), where you’ll find great trees, shrubs, herbs, pots, houseplants and yes, some more perennials too.

 

For information about visiting the Wylde Center

 

 

 

 Written by Liane Schleifer - aka The Plant Hunter Files: Number 43