It can be difficult to decide on the best way to enter Wamboldtopia. There’s the main entrance through a stone archway with inserts of gargoyles, skeletons, miniature staircases and headstones. The archway leads to stairs made from orange, pink and gray bricks stamped with geometric patterns — salvaged from Asheville streets now covered in concrete — and a railing that doubles as a silent guardian — a metal dragon whose long body is composed of rusted wheels and gears.
Or there’s the side entrance, which weaves up the garden’s steep hill via switchback trails lined with flowering bushes, moss and ferns. There’s a bridge over a small pond, home to koi, goldfish and aquatic plants, shaded by looming trees that cause the sunlight to flicker like lights on a Christmas tree. The trails lead all the way to the top of the hill and the rows of an herb garden, lined with fairy homes and figures of angels and saints. A wedding circle made from the same salvaged bricks rests beyond the herb garden, framed by an arcade of stone and stucco that covers an old electric fence.
Whichever path you take, the effect is otherworldly.
“Much of this is inspired by fairies, magic — childhood things,” says Wamboldtopia co-owner Damaris Pierce. “I grew up quickly, so I guess I’m still holding on to my childhood. Why else would a grown woman do this?”
Since 1999, Wamboldtopia has been the ever-growing home and garden of artists Damaris and Ricki Pierce. It began as a steep, shady hillside covered in grass, but after 15 years of transformation, Wamboldtopia is a West Asheville institution — a fairyland covered in stone. But for Damaris and Ricki, this is the last season in the garden before they place the home on the market and prepare to move on to new and separate lives.
“This year, we finally made the decision to leave,” Damaris says. “We’ve been split up for almost four years, and we live in two separate residences on the property. It’s been a long decision-making of, ‘Are we going to let it go? Are we really going to do this?’ But it’s time.”
Damaris and Ricki met on the property, back when it held only Damaris’ vinyl-sided house and an herb garden. A friend recommended Ricki, a stonemason, to build the water feature that became the pond.
“We just had this chemistry,” Damaris recalls. “We completed the pond together, and he stayed. The rest came together piece by piece. There was no master plan, no plan period.”
The couple spent the early years in their garden painstakingly hauling materials up the steep hill. With each new trail Ricki cut into the hillside came a new section to be filled with plants, stone walkways or Damaris’ sculptures. Much of Wamboldtopia developed out of necessity — including the stone façades and pathways, born from Ricki’s stockpile of excess materials.
“Stone is my medium, and it’s not like a bottle of paint,” Ricki says. “It’s a pile of rock and another pile of rock and then, ‘What are we going to do with all these piles of rock?’ I kept bringing it home, so why not cover the house in stone? A lot of this came from that spirit of ‘why not?’”
Damaris and Ricki were married at Wamboldtopia within a year of meeting. Ricki built the wedding circle at the top of the hill to serve as Damaris’ engagement ring.
“She didn’t want a ring,” Ricki recalls. “She lugged all the brick up there in buckets before we even had the wheelbarrow trails. She said she wanted the circle, so I said, ‘OK, for our wedding gift, since you don’t want a ring, I will build this circle so we can get married on it.’”
The garden continued to grow through what Damaris describes as “years of construction and chaos,” fueled by Ricki’s whimsy and Damaris’ love of traditional English herb gardens and lore.
“I remember just being totally overwhelmed,” Damaris recalls. “But every time we would cut in another section, I was like, ‘OK, what can we do here?’ Each season things just grew. We didn’t set out to build some kind of monument — it was just letting creativity and imagination flow.”
As Wamboldtopia grew, it attracted the attention of the neighborhood — long stares, frequent drive-bys and the occasional knock on the door. After much debate, the couple agreed to open the garden to the public for the first West Asheville Garden Stroll in 2009.
“I didn’t see it the way she was seeing it,” Ricki recalls. “I just thought, ‘This is my yard, and it isn’t any more special or different than anyone else’s. I just happen to be able to do this.’ But when we started letting people in, it was so gratifying and humbling to hear the response.”
Since the first WAGS tour the garden has hosted schoolchildren, wandering artists, neighbors bringing their out-of-town guests, national writers from The Garden Bloggers Fling, a film crew from PBS, weddings and more neighborhood garden tours.
“I found that process so tender and moving,” Damaris says. “So much of our work is solitary, even when we’re working together, and what artist can work in isolation? This place is a humongous canvas.”
Damaris says it was the feedback from the garden’s visitors that helped her and Ricki weather the hard times that would come later, including when they showed the garden as part of the 2010 Asheville GreenWorks Father’s Day tour.
“We had just decided to break up,” Damaris says. “It was really difficult to get ready for that, to pull our energies together to work on this while we were in the middle of this breakup.”
“I remember there being this moment for you where you were so moved,” she says to Ricki. “He was standing there by the pond, and people were raving and saying, ‘How magical!’ And he was in tears. You just don’t realize what you’ve accomplished until someone else spells it out.”
“I’m still moved,” Ricki says, tears visible in his eyes. “People still make me cry.”
“Awww,” Damaris exclaims. “Mushy on the inside!”
Reflecting on the most important lessons they’ll take from Wamboldtopia, Damaris and Ricki could be talking about maintaining a relationship as much as maintaining a garden.
“Patience,” Ricki says.
“Go with the flow and let go of perfection,” Damaris says.
“Learn to be flexible, even when you are strong in your ideas.”
“Find that balance of planning and making it up as you go along.”
Despite over a decade spent working on the property, the pair say they won’t be taking much from Wamboldtopia when they leave, save a few sculptures and stockpiles of rock.
“We could strip this place, take all the special plants, all the stone work,” Ricki says. “But it doesn’t make much sense to take it because then we would be taking apart what we spent so long building. And it would take the specialness away from here.”
“I’m leaving my engagement ring behind,” Damaris adds. “There’s a lot of letting go right now.”
Damaris says she doubts she’ll create anything like Wamboldtopia again. She’s burned out on home ownership and after 15 years of work, she’s looking for “a lighter footprint.” But Ricki?
“Oh, he’s ready to do this again,” Damaris says.
“It’s true,” Ricki laughs. “I come home with material, which is a blessing and curse. It’s like the legend of going to hell and pushing a boulder up a hill for eternity. I’ve already spent my life doing that, so hopefully hell won’t be so bad.”
When asked their most vivid memory of Wamboldtopia, Ricki thinks back to the beginning.
“For me, it’s the first one, when Damaris and I met,” he says. “Everything started around that pond and grew from there.”
“I’d say all this is, if anything, the result of one of the best friendships I’ve ever had,” he adds.
“Ditto,” Damaris says. “And also, working together — sweating and working and then stepping back and looking at what you’ve done, having a glass of tea on the porch and saying, ‘Wow, this was a good day.’”
“To me, this whole place is a love story, even now,” she continues. “We can talk all day about the work and the challenges and the specifics of the plants, but none of that would have come about if we hadn’t been so in love — if we didn’t love the garden, the sculpture, the rock, the work, the process and spending time with one another.”
“They call it a labor of love,” she adds.
“But there’s been no labor,” Ricki says. “I haven’t worked a day in the last 15 years. This has been fun.”
Scroll through the slideshow to see more images from Wamboldtopia.