In the Garden of P. Allen Smith, a Media Empire Blooms

by Sam Eifling  on Monday, Apr. 12, 2010 12:00 am  

The way Smith describes his time in England suggests Southerners have a natural advantage among the well-heeled. "Thank the Lord for my mother's side of the family or I wouldn't have known how to behave," he says. "We were taught from an early age to sing for our supper, so we were encouraged to learn to spin a yarn and tell a good tale and have a good sense of humor, and the English love that, and they love Southerners. I fell in the lap of really good company and was invited to do extraordinary things."

This statement echoes in the April 7 New York Times coverage of a designers' charity dinner, in which the reporter began her report with Smith: "the PBS garden show star" froze two swans who killed one another fighting, and then had them stuffed and transported for the Manhattan gala.

Smith has that knack for making an impression. Warren Stephens, the Little Rock investment and media magnate, recalls Smith's work on his home landscaping 22 years ago, and the sense he left with Stephens and his wife that Smith knew landscaping completely.

"He has a great sense of humor, and he has a joy of living that is contagious, really," Stephens said. "Harriet and I will kind of laugh that spending a couple of days with Allen is like drinking from a fire hose, because he has so many ideas about stuff and you're just trying to take them all in and process them." Stephens said he has since offered Smith business advice; Smith, for his part, was invited back to design the landscaping for Stephens' exclusive Alotian Golf Club, in Roland.

Mark Brockinton, the managing director for Aon insurance in Arkansas, had a similar experience when Smith designed his garden in The Heights a decade ago. The project also led to a friendship, and the sketches Smith made for the project still hang as art in the Brockintons' home. "There was nothing left undone," Brockinton said. "He gave us the impression that was the most important project he'd ever done. I'm sure he does that for everybody, but that's how we felt."

Therein, perhaps, is Smith's success: managing to make millions of people feel as though they have his attention, or at least his expertise. He has made playing in the dirt both an art and a science, and offers a glimpse of both in explaining farm living to audiences who grew up away from the land.

"What we've found that's thrilling," Smith says, "is they're extremely interested in learning these things that they never had anyone to teach them to do."



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