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The Martha Stewart Of The South

By Author: tearsjoong
Total Articles: 51

FEW people here would argue that Arkansas has a fancier resident than P. Allen Smith.

Sure, former President Bill Clinton has the name recognition, but is he a fellow in the Royal Horticultural Society?

Does he own a 650-acre estate punctuated with 175,000 daffodils and a spectacular, three-story camera-ready Greek Revival retreat?

Does he have the highlighted blond hair, a growing middle America fan base and an upcoming line of branded holiday wreaths and spice rubs?

No, Mr. Clinton does not.

Still, Mr. Smith might well be the most famous tastemaker you've never heard of. The son of a working-class widow, he grew up with 4-H chickens and a job in the family shrub shop, then managed to turn himself into the Martha Stewart of the South.

Here, everyone in town seems to know him. People say hello with an easy familiarity. Sure, there are those who will tell you his fame has gone to his head, but his fans don't agree.

“He comes across as someone we could relate to,” said Yingling Dewitt, who along with his wife, Debbie, watches Mr. Smith's national public television series, “P. Allen Smith's Garden Home.” “It's kind of like talking to your neighbor who can tell you what's working for him and what isn't.”

Yet despite the quarter-million gardening books in print, two TV shows and 100,000 e-newsletter subscribers, the name P. Allen Smith can draw a blank among a certain slice of the garden and design crowd.

“Don't you think if he had moved to the Hamptons or Napa he would have had a different career path?” asked Lauren Shakely, senior vice president and publisher at Clarkson Potter, who signed the self-described hillbilly boy to a contract that has now run to six books and made him the company's star gardening author. GAS_5046.jpg

But Mr. Smith, nearing 50 and about to introduce a line of products and his first cookbook, will never leave Arkansas. Although his brand is carefully designed to be universal and accessible no matter where his customers might live, Arkansas is the well from which he draws his inspiration and his power.

“I think sometimes the best perspective is from the periphery,” he said during a walk through his Moss Mountain Farm, a stunning estate overlooking the Arkansas River a half-hour drive from Little Rock. He bought the land five years ago and has since built an environmentally friendly homestead surrounded by acres of gardens and livestock whose main structure was built to mimic an 1840s farmhouse. “Here we are in the middle of nowhere Arkansas and we're doing something remarkable because we embrace the local vibe and we're connected to the land and the people around us,” he said.

Even when he was shopping for a New York publisher a decade ago, he refused to do business with anyone who didn't first visit him in Little Rock. Still, the publishers came. They were seduced as much by the charmer who made sure their hotel rooms were filled with peonies as with the erudite designer who could articulate what was a new concept at the time: a garden filled with distinct areas, or outdoor rooms.

Mr. Smith believes a house is an archetype for the soul, and should have a balanced living environment with inner and outer aesthetics connected by a seamless transition.

Of course, that may not translate to the average gardener in Columbus, Ohio. So he simplifies the message, offering beauty with instant accessibility. The garden home can be yours with a few simple principles and techniques, the centerpiece of which is creative use of containers.

Off camera, Mr. Smith's world is a tightly orchestrated one, with smooth lines and little room for improvisation. Not even a few dead flies or a poorly parked car escape his attention.

Most of his staff, which he said numbers about 45, wear the uniform: navy P. Allen Smith logo shirts and khakis. They are spread over three arms of the empire. Hortus Ltd., his media company, produces his Web site, books and his two TV shows, which collectively are broadcast in 180 markets.

He also owns a design company. His real estate company handles the Moss Mountain Farm, which his brother, Christopher Smith, runs.

Sponsorships, partnerships and endorsements pay a lot of the bills.

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