Garden Guru

Jack Barnwell, a multifaceted, homegrown talent, elevates outdoor spaces nationwide // Photography by Jennifer Wohletz
Verbena and zinnias, and limelight hydrangeas, all do well on Mackinac, says the gardens’ designer, Jack Barnwell.

Award-winning landscape architect and author Jack Barnwell could be considered a triple threat — he’s president of Barnwell Landscape & Garden Inc. on Mackinac Island, and also owns C3 Gardens in Naples, Fla., and Jack Barnwell Design, based in Traverse City.

He took a liking to the “green industry” while growing up in Harbor Springs, where he worked at a greenhouse. “In high school, I was always drawn to gardening and being outside,” Barnwell says. Later, as a college student, he studied horticulture and landscape design. He attended the University of Hawaii, where he worked on a variety of landscaping jobs before moving back to the lower 48 to finish college at the University of Montana (where he met his future wife).

Eventually, the couple returned to Michigan. “It was just me and my bicycle and a bunch of hand-me-down rusty tools, but I knew how to make a beautiful garden,” he says. He started his business by taking care of his family’s and friends’ gardens, and word spread. Today, his commercial and residential work shines on Mackinac Island, rooted in the classic Victorian look he understands well, thanks to spending summers there growing up and becoming passionate about the history of that design style.

In addition to his work with landscapes and lighting, Barnwell created the patented AquaPots premium ceramic self-watering planters. They’re absolutely a benefit for the island’s weekend residents, who can water their porch pot on Sunday before heading back to the mainland, and return to find a lush and healthy plant.

Living so close to the water, Barnwell says you have to pay tremendous respect to Mother Nature and the elements. He also recommends blending in with the natural environment as much as possible. In a dune-like setting, that could mean planting native grasses, with roses and hydrangea closer to the home for more color and detail.  (The hydrangea photo at right is from Barnwell’s  book, “The Gardens of Mackinac Island,” available at Main Street Art in Milford and on the island at The Island Bookstore and Grand Hotel.) “In an outdoor living area, it’s important to make it transition into the surrounding woodlands or beachfront,” he says. “You don’t want a stark line between the two.”

Outdoor living areas typically require more room than anticipated for patio furniture or a fire pit, adds Barnwell, who softens those spaces with planters. “Everybody wants an outdoor oasis for that staycation, so they can enjoy every minute of the beautiful summer weather right at home,” he says.

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Lilacs often appear in Barnwell’s northern Michigan landscapes. “They’re such an incredible celebration for the return of spring,” he says. “They’re hardy, no-fuss, and they can be pruned into beautifully arched, tree-like forms. When you frame a view in lilacs in a seating area, you can unwind with a cold beer or a glass of wine and have a wonderful celebration of the first great weekend of the year.”

— JM


Barnwell, who resides on Mackinac Island in the summer and heads to Naples, Fla., in the winter, says it’s hard to put into words the calming effect of looking out at a lake in the evening and listening to the sounds of birds, the breeze, and the lapping waves. “It’s different than looking out on the ocean or a river. I’ve always used it as a restart for myself at the end of a busy day planting and taking care of island gardens,” he says. “It’s a re-check to prepare for the next day.” His favorite way to spend time on the lake is with motor-free crafts like canoes, kayaks, or paddleboards. His garden features classic perennials: daisies, daylilies, coneflowers, poppies, hollyhocks, and irises. “They’re super tough and they were there long before we took stewardship of our 120-year-old log cabin,” Barnwell says of the low-maintenance varieties that he doesn’t have to fuss with when he gets home. “Living by the lakeshore, what I’ve come to enjoy is all the native wildflowers and plants that seem to surprise us in the most impossible places, like cracks and crevices, or a notch in a cedar tree. It’s the ones nature planted and I didn’t that I enjoy the most.”

— JM

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