The Kai Garden doesn’t have a retail storefront, an ecommerce site, or even regular business hours. Yet the grounds of Eric Mack’s East Lake residence are home to a sprawling one-man nursery and pop-up shop with one of the city’s best selections of rare and unusual plants.
For Mack, a nationally renowned mixed-media artist, it started five years ago, when he planted a small patch of sweet potato vines and simple annuals like violas and petunias. Tending to living things helped him heal after the death of his stillborn son and the garden’s namesake, Kai.
“I started feeling better about myself because I was able to nurture and take care of my plants in a way I couldn’t nurture and care for my son,” he says.
Within a year, he had turned over every bed in his nearly 400-square-foot corner lot, which now features a walkway dotted with colorful Darwin hybrid tulips, a Japanese garden of topiaries and evergreens, and several greenhouses and makeshift shelves lined with thousands of shrubs, flowers, and herbs.
“I’ve never even had another person cut the grass,” he says. “I dug every hole, repotted every plant myself, and it has never felt like work.”
Mack did not originally intend to sell his plants, but his collection quickly outgrew his small yard and basement nursery. In the spring of 2021, his wife suggested he offload some to clear up space and cover the expenses of his newfound hobby.
“I made these lime green, handwritten ‘rare and unusual garden plants’ signs with a time and address,” he explains of the genesis of his monthly pop-up plant sales.
Word quickly spread throughout his neighborhood and then across the city, and Mack estimates 50 to 60 shoppers regularly attend what he calls a “yard sale, but for plants.”
“People will really go out of their way to find something unusual,” says Mack. For example, he recently sold a Digitalis lanata ‘Cafe Creme,’ a tubular foxglove native to Greece adorned with hooded flowers Mack likens to “tiny lady slippers.”
Affable and earnest, Mack rattles off the origins and distinct features of each plant with the knowledge of a seasoned botanist and language of a poet. He describes pale pink hollyhock as a “charmer” with “delicate, pendant-like flowers” and “an intoxicating fragrance.”
Although he specializes in exotic plants, he wants gardening to remain accessible. He stocks almost exclusively perennials, and he talks extensively with each customer about their needs and home environment so both the plant and new owner are set up for success.
The Kai Garden has also inspired Mack’s work as a visual artist. His recent show at the Albany (Georgia) Museum of Art, Ordo naturalis, featured works with geometric and foliage patterns mixed with natural elements like rain-tree leaves and peat-free soil.
While Mack isn’t ruling out an eventual storefront for his rapidly growing business, for now, he’s “quite content” with his home garden. He recently finished Emory University’s START:ME Accelerator training and mentorship program for local entrepreneurs and plans on installing an automated irrigation system and commercial greenhouse in his yard to keep up with demand. And he’s become active with community gardens like the Wylde Center.
“It’s not about the cash,” he says. “Just nurturing and taking care of plants, moving soil around and noticing what needs water or fertilizer that day reminds me that my son is here, that this garden is him.” Follow Mack at @thekaigarden on Instagram to keep up with sale dates.
This article appears in our July 2022 issue.