Gardens and Gardeners

All Articles Copyright 2005 by Adam Levine

One of my pet peeves in reading about gardens is when the writer completely ignores the gardeners. Gardens would not exist without the gardener or gardeners who created them. When I write about a garden, the story is often as much about the people as the plants. That idea is exemplified to varying degrees in the following articles. The story about mentors is the extreme example: all about gardeners and the people who influenced their gardens and their lives.

Unfortunately, there are no pictures with the stories at this time, but if my friend Rob Cardillo, a wonderful photographer who has captured several of these gardens on film, is someday feeling benevolent, I might be able to add some of his work here.

Use these links to read the following stories. Click any story heading to return to the top of the page.

Garden of David Culp and Michael Alderfer

Hedgleigh Spring, Garden of Charles Cresson, Swarthmore, Pa.

Chanticleer: A Pleasure Garden, Wayne, Pa.

Gardening Mentors


The History of Philadelphia's Watersheds and Sewers

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Garden of David Culp and Michael Alderfer
Article originally appeared in Horticulture

One way to get to the beautiful garden of David Culp and Michael Alderfer, about thirty miles outside Philadelphia, is to take a four-lane limited-access “bypass” designed to carry harried commuters past congested towns as they race to and from their jobs. Such roads often seem to me a modern perversion of evolution, a test of human stamina and nerves that could be considered “survival of the fastest.” I am always relieved when I survive the drive to Culp and Alderfer's exit, decelerate down the ramp, and turn up into a little valley, dotted with old farmhouses and an old mill beside a tumbling creek that seems part of a bygone world.

On my first visit a few years ago I missed the garden and came immediately to a typical lawnscaped suburban development, planted on a former farm, that adjoins their property on the upper edge. This juxtaposition with sterile suburbia only makes the garden of Culp and Alderfer garden seem more special, and important. Great gardens such as this one are the “ambassadors” of horticulture, announcing with their simple existence: This is what is possible. When such a garden also has an eloquent and impassioned spokesperson, this message of hope for the American landscape gets carried that much further.


As Culp and Alderfer showed me around their garden last November, what I saw was, in many ways, typical of the season in southeastern Pennsylvania. Several hard frosts had blackened most of the perennials and annuals, and all but a few had been cut down and added to the compost pile. The deciduous trees were mostly bare, the sad odor of fallen leaves a signal to most gardeners in these parts that the end of the gardening season is near.

But suddenly Culp dropped to his knees on the gravel path. Looking down, I saw the diminutive object of his adoration: a clump of snowdrops, one of 42 different species and forms to be found in this two-acre garden. I have never been a great fan of snowdrops, but Culp's enthusiasms are infectious, and I soon found myself kneeling beside him, peering into one of the flowers, trying to discern what made this specimen of the genus unique besides its name: Galanthus nivalis reginae olgae ssp. reginae olgae corcyrensis -- a cumbersome appellation which seems longer than the plant is tall.

This is Culp's favorite way to share the garden with visitors: on the ground, faces pressed close to the plants as he tries to explain their oh-so-subtle botanical differences. In others this would be mere pedantry, but Culp approaches his garden with such a breathless air of childlike wonder that visitors can only smile, and try their best to love what he loves. “I want people who come here to react to the garden emotionally,” he says. “It's not just a little cerebral game. I want them to feel it, touch it, smell it -- like I do.”

Besides the Galanthus (the earliest of which bloom in September and the latest in March), the garden includes collections of Rosa, Hepatica, Geranium, Kniphofia, Cyclamen, Euphorbia, Arum, Paeonia. The “signature genus” is Helleborus, which Culp has been growing for more than 20 years and breeding for more than a dozen. One result of this obsession has just been unveiled, with plants from his “Brandywine” seed strain of hellebores now being sold to the wholesale trade by North Creek Nurseries, in Landenberg, Pa. They should start appearing in retail nurseries over the next few years. “If I like a genus I indulge myself in it completely. When it comes to gardening and plants, I've always been irrepressible. I lived in apartments where you couldn't walk out on the balconies, where all the windowsills were full. I look into the future and I see Michael and I – we may be using walkers, but we'll still be gardening. I don't see that it will ever end.”

Alderfer works for a company that installs and maintains indoor plantscapes, while Culp works for Sunny Border Nurseries, a Connecticut wholesale grower, in both sales and research and development. In the latter position, Culp spends from four to six weeks a year traveling around the world, looking for new plants that the nursery might acquire and bring to market. These trips also afford him a perfect opportunity to feed his and Alderfer's plant passions. In Italy a number of years ago he saw how Arum italicum grew wild in the dry hillsides around Rome, and has since been buying unusual specimens for his own dry hillside. He fell in love with the multitude of Hepatica hybrids at a nursery in England, recalling, “I had my camera around my neck, but I was so stunned by the plants that I forgot to take any pictures.” Last year he spent two weeks in Japan at the peak of iris season. “I went to a Buddhist temple where the monks had been cultivating Iris ensata [Japanese iris] for 500 years,” he says. “Talk about a religious experience! The forms, the colors! I've got to find a way to get them to the US”

Culp's hellebore collection numbers in the hundreds, with 50 double-flowered forms alone, and he is constantly adding to it with his own new hybrids and those of other breeders here and abroad. Besides their wide range of flower colors – from near-black to white and with many shades between (except for blue and red, which have so far eluded hybridizers), Culp admires hellebores for their evergreen foliage, and for their ability to grow almost anywhere except in standing water and full, baking sun.

“But what first captured me was their spirit, their gumption for blooming in February, or even January some years,” he says. Large sweeps of hellebores -- in the beds around to the house, on the hillside, and elsewhere in the garden -- now form the core of the garden's winter show. Strong supporting roles are played by Galanthus, Adonis, winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), and the tiny but graceful Narcissus 'Cedric Morris', which blooms on and off from September to March. Providing the backdrop for these flowers are the golden russet foliage of several forms of Carex, the black strappy leaves of Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' (Black mondo grass), the shiny dark green Arum foliage and various evergreen ferns such as Dryopteris australis (Dixie wood fern), one of Culp's favorites. These flowers and greenery work to shift the sense of the seasons, easing the catalogue-flipping tedium of the usual gardener's winter. “It took time, it was a challenge,” Culp says, “but we've managed to do away with the dormant season here.”

An incorrigible optimist, Culp saw only potential when he bought this slightly-rundown 1790 farmhouse and adjoining two acres in 1990. (Alderfer joined him there in 1993.) The house sits on a relatively flat rectangular acre below a steep hillside of roughly equal size. The gardens closest to the house were developed first. These include the “Jewel Box,” a raised bed which became home to a number of small rarities that might have been lost in a larger setting, and the walled ruin, or rock garden, which first had to be cleared of tires, automobile fenders and other accumulated junk left behind by the previous owner. The transformation of the overgrown hillside, begun about five years ago, is still underway. The understory on the hill was a six-foot-high tangle of invasive vines and shrubs, and Alderfer had to cut it over twice by hand before any planting could begin. They also limbed up the trees, to give a clear view to the hilltop from the flat area below.

A few of the dead trees on the hillside were left standing, to provide habitat for wildlife. Alderfer cut out most of the poison ivy, but left a few of the oldest vines alone, as their berries are a rich source of food for birds, which both he and Culp love. Inside the house, Christopher the canary sings and whistles incessantly, while outside, the garden is home to a dozen Old English Bantam chickens. Small enough not to trample the plants as the scratch in the beds in search of insects and grubs, Culp sees them as living garden ornaments, adding a moving, feathery, gently-clucking presence to the beds.

Part of the genius of this place is that the gardeners have managed to blend their many plant collections seamlessly into the whole. It helps that, instead of single specimens, the collections contain dozens, even hundreds of forms of various genera, and that the plants have been intermingled in various beds (rather than grouped together by genus as in a botanical garden), which provides a continuity of form throughout the garden.

The addition of more common plants with upright forms is another unifying theme. Some of Culp's favorite combinations – those that he says “get me drunk in the garden without drinking” -- include these spiky plants: the foxgloves, pillar roses and Siberian irises of late May; and around Fourth of July, Acanthus mollis, Lilium regale and Thalictrum rochebruneanum 'Lavender Mist'. Another similar moment happens in early May, in the rock garden. With the foliage of the evergreens fresh and new, the wall awash in the pink cascades of Saponaria ocimoides, and the Nepeta in full bloom on the ground, the black locust tree above drops its flowers over everything, like fragrant white snow.
It certainly doesn't hurt that the garden has great “bones”—the old house and trees, solid hedges and stone walls, the setting of the ruin for the rock garden, the hillside's dramatic changes in elevation. “Bones are important,” Culp says. “But what we're trying to do is breathe life into those bones.” One way they do this is by allowing plants, such as hawkweed (Hieraceum sp.) and several Corydalis species, to naturalize in the garden, leaving the plants they want and editing out the rest. These self-sowers, along with plants (such as Geranium 'Ann Folkard' and Campanula poscharskyana) that weave and wind among their neighbors, help loosen up the design, filling in gaps and making the garden look older and more established that it is.

“I love gardens that have a mind of their own,” Culp says. “The idea isn't to duplicate Mother Nature, because that's impossible, but we want to try to catch her spirit. People sometimes forget this spirit. They get hung up on rules. They think that this color can't go with that one; they're always thinking, 'What am I doing wrong?' When you start out you need rules, but after a while you can put them away in a drawer . And if you dare to break some of those rules, you begin to realize that this isn't a cure for cancer, this isn't nuclear war. It's a garden, it's fun.”

Hedgleigh Spring, Garden of Charles Cresson, Swarthmore, Pa.
Article originally appeared in Martha Stewart Living, May 2002

At Hedgleigh Spring, Charles Cresson’s garden in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, what visitors see from the front seems barely out of the ordinary for this quiet, tree-lined avenue of pre-World War II houses. Yews, rhododendrons, and Japanese hollies flank Cresson's entry porch. An ancient white oak towers over the house and the adjacent spring house, which shelters the pure water source that gave the property its name. A cutleaf Japanese maple, more than one hundred years old, leads the eye to the left of the house, where the entrance to the garden—a stone path between old azaleas—lies almost hidden from view.

Even when visitors follow this path to the back, most of the garden still remains to be discovered. The waterfall on the creek can be heard, but not seen; the fern dell and pond garden are still just numbers on the homemade map that Cresson gives to guests. Well-placed plantings, hundreds of feet of stone walls, and several changes in grade break the garden into a series of ten distinct “rooms,” each one mostly hidden from the others, although some are only a few feet apart. Carefully sited evergreens block most of the houses that, in this densely settled suburban neighborhood, would otherwise be visible from the property. As a result, the garden feels much larger than it is. Hedgleigh Spring, a name that implies a grand scale, covers only two acres, but this space is so intensively planted, so meticulously maintained, and so cleverly designed that it has more to see and enjoy than many gardens several times its size.

The garden’s framework was the creation of Cresson’s grandfather, William J. Cresson Sr. He built the house in 1911 on land that was part of his father’s gentleman’s farm and spent the rest of his life fashioning a garden from the open fields. After William Sr.’s death, in 1959, Charles’ father, William Jr., moved his family into the house. He continued to maintain the garden just as his father had left it and passed along his love of the property to his son. Charles took over care of the place in 1979, after studying horticulture in the United States and in England and honing his skills in various gardens, including those maintained at Wisley, in Surrey, by the Royal Horticultural Society.

Cresson preserved his grandfather’s design, but time had taken its toll. He rebuilt many of the walls and renovated most of the beds—lifting all of the plants, rejuvenating the soil, replanting some of the original specimens, and replacing others with plants of similar character. During the restoration process, Cresson also added a rich layer of herbaceous species that was previously lacking in many areas of the garden because his grandfather’s scheme had focused mainly on trees and shrubs. “I’m refining his design, finishing off the picture,” Cresson says.

One example of this refining is the wildflower meadow, where Cresson planted thousands of heirloom daffodils, such as Narcissus ‘White Lady’ and N. ‘Barri Conspicuus.’ These bulbs, along with sweeps of snowdrops (Galanthus) and several varieties of Camassia, provide flowers from February through May. For summer bloom, he added native plants, including cup plant (Sylphium perfoliatum) and Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum). Both have towering eight-foot blooms that add drama to a walk through the meadow and provide a backdrop for other areas of the garden.

During his more than twenty-year tenure as steward, Cresson has transformed Hedgleigh Spring into a consummate plantsman’s garden, with more than two thousand species and varieties. Some of these are common—such as the white rose, Rosa ‘Silver Moon’ and cottage pinks (Dianthus plumarius), which were both first planted by his grandfather around the sunken garden. Others are more unusual, such as a small, rarely seen gesneriad, Haberlea rhodopensis, growing happily in the wall adjacent to the pond, and Chinese persimmon (Diospyros kaki ‘Great Wall’), which bears so many small orange fruits each fall that Cresson refers to it as "the pumpkin tree.”

For some people, confining their garden to a late-relative’s design would be frustrating, but for Cresson, an avid plant collector, it has helped him learn when enough is enough. “If I get interested in a particular genus I’ll collect cultivars and specimens until the garden is saturated with them, until there are no more appropriate niches. Then I'll stop, unless I find something very unusual,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s impossible to maintain the integrity of the design.”

These layers of gardening, laid down by three generations over the past ninety years, give the garden a beauty and maturity—a richness both in history and horticulture­—that is rare in such a middle-class residential setting. It is a garden that, like great music, can be appreciated on many different levels. “People without musical training might like a piece of music simply because it sounds good, or makes them feel good,” Cresson says. “But a musician will hear it with a whole different level of understanding. My hope is that this garden is worthy of being appreciated on that deeper level, by those who can."

Chanticleer: A Pleasure Garden, Wayne, Pa.
Article originally appeared in Horticulture, May 2004

I visited Chanticleer, a public garden in Wayne, Pa., on its opening day this year, a damp, cloudy last day of March, with the breath of winter still lingering over the place. The garden is known for its innovative, sometimes extravagant plant combinations and its bold use of color, but on this day the 32-acre former estate was bursting with nothing more than potential. While a sweep of early daffodils stood tall against the cold, and a smattering of blossoms adorned the branches of a few trees and shrubs, the buds on most everything else were clamped shut. In some ways gardens are at their most exciting this time of year, because before anything happens, everything has a chance to be perfect. When the garden is as familiar as Chanticleer is to me, it is possible to walk around and populate the bare beds with the past season's glories, which are always more glorious in memory.

Memories, however, are not always reliable predictors of the future at Chanticleer, because this is a garden that never stands on past laurels. New beds crop up yearly, sometimes even mid-season; mistakes of one year disappear by the next; and even favorite garden sections receive frequent makeovers. This dynamism is partly due to the property's continuing transformation from private estate to public garden, which began less than fifteen years ago. But credit also is due to a board of directors that allows its staff, at every level, to dream up new ideas and implement them. The garden has no bureaucracy to bog down creativity, no committees to review suggestions other than the board as a whole, which in turn delegates most of those decisions to the director. Changes can be made quickly, often after a single conversation between director and gardener, which means that at Chanticleer, nothing is ever cast in stone—as it turns out, not even a stone house.

"Gardens come and go, beds come and go, as your taste changes, or as conditions change, as the woody canopy matures and creates shade where there was sun," says Joe Henderson, a Chanticleer gardener and one of fourteen full time staff members. "I always encourage people to free themselves from the idea that once they plant something, it has to stay there forever. Here we have the freedom to experiment. If what we do comes across, that's great. If it doesn't, we whack it out and try again next year."

Adolph G. Rosengarten Jr., the last private owner of Chanticleer, was an heir to a fortune consolidated when his family's firm merged with Merck & Co. in 1927, creating what was then the largest pharmaceutical company in the world. After his death in 1990, Rosengarten left a generous endowment to preserve the property as open space, but what this bequest omitted has proved to be the garden's biggest blessing.

“In his will, Mr. Rosengarten was loose in his instructions; he didn't say things had to be preserved in any particular way,” says Bill Thomas, the garden's current Executive Director. “Other horticultural organizations have extremely tight restrictions in their charters which tie their hands, but here, because of the looseness of the will, there's definitely a dynamic feel that has allowed us to evolve.”

From 1990 to 2003, Chris Woods, the garden's first director, served as impresario of this evolution. He worked first as a horticulturist for Mr. Rosengarten, and after the owner's death was chosen by the board to prepare the garden for its public opening in 1993. The property, purchased and developed by Adolph G. Rosengarten Sr. beginning in 1912, was beautiful when Woods took over, with three houses set amid rolling hills, wide sweeps of lawns, old trees, and a stream running through the bottom section. But the horticulture in many ways was uninspired, typical of the staid estates that can still be found tucked away in Wayne and other Main Line suburbs outside Philadelphia.

During his tenure, Woods gained the trust of the board and began exercising the freedom granted by Rosengarten's will. He worked to instill the garden with a sense of humor and drama, seeing the property as a stage set and the staff as the backstage crew, with all their work geared for the pleasure of the visitor. “Chris used to walk around on opening day and announce to us, 'Two hours to showtime!'” recalls gardener Dan Benarcik. “It was a little annoying, when we were racing to get all the last minute things done, but that's really what it is. We throw back the curtain and let people in.”

Besides dreaming up some unusual projects of his own, Woods hired a talented staff of gardeners who, more than just implementing the director's ideas, have been encouraged to act as the de facto curators and designers of their assigned garden sections. "With the freedom we're given in our own areas," says gardener Przemyslaw Walczak, "you can actually leave your mark on it and develop it over the years." Besides this autonomy, another advantage is that, while the gardeners work year-round, the garden is open only from the end of March to the end of October. "When we're not worried about looking good for the public," says gardener Laurel Voran, "we have time to do creative things." Besides designing next year's new beds and ordering new plants, in this extended off-season the gardeners can undertake major construction projects without having to worry about inconveniencing the visiting public.

Many of the staff are also skilled craftspeople, and use the winter months to build the wonderful, sometimes wildly-painted furniture, bridges, tables, trellises, arbors, fences and other accessories that ornament the garden. Gardener Doug Randolph's work is particularly notable, especially his carved stone sofa and easy chair, complete with TV remote control, in which any couch-potato caveperson would feel right at home.

“People come here looking for the hidden seating areas, the new treasures that the gardeners create every year, the new walkways and paths, the new plants in the beds,” says gardener Lisa Roper. “Children look for the little nooks and crannies they can hide in. The garden is so full of routes off the beaten path that each visit can be a new adventure.”

I usually begin my tour of the garden at the Tropical Teacup, a pair of connected sunken courtyards behind the house that now serves as the garden's administration building. Since these beds are almost wholly planted with tropical specimens trucked north from nurseries in Florida, it tends to be the most variable section of the garden. In past years the Teacup, which is not fully planted until the warm weather of May, has featured both lush, colorful plants with bold foliage, and a more spare look using hundreds of bromeliads.

The nearby Tennis Court garden, as its name suggest, is a former court dug up and transformed into a sunken four-square garden, backed by a rose- and vine-covered pergola, with colorful mixed plantings of shrubs, grasses and various perennial and tender herbaceous plants overflowing the beds by midsummer. Across an open lawn below the Tennis Court is a cutting and vegetable garden, and beyond that, a peaceful streamside garden, a new section of which is now under development. This area peaks in the spring, but all year it provides a cool respite from the horticultural extravagance of the rest of the place.

A series of gravel beds, with a beautiful collection of herbs, succulents and other dry-loving plants, covers a wide slope that overlooks a series of artificial ponds, each encircled with a colorful border. The largest pond is home to a variety of aquatic plants, including the fast-spreading lotus, Nelumbo 'Mrs. Perry Slocum,' which needs to be whacked back two or three times a year to keep it from overspreading the entire pond. The Asian Woods, adjoining the ponds, features a collection of mostly-Asian plants beneath a very American setting: a canopy of mostly native trees, including tulip poplar and beech. Past the woods, back out in the sun, is a nod to the garden's agricultural past: a swirling, decorative bed of agricultural grains that looks beautiful in its many stages of growth.

From there, up a steep, wide expanse of lawn, at the property's highest point, sits the main house, Chanticleer. In the front courtyard a circular driveway, no longer used, is now paved with red gravel, carefully raked, Japanese-style, in patterns that change from day to day. Around the back is a sunny terrace that, in past years, has been home to hundreds of planted containers. At the far end of the terrace water pours out of a lion-head fountain, into a soothing rill that mimics, in Moorish style, Bell's Run, the real stream on the backside property. A nearby swimming pool, frustratingly inviting on a midsummer midday, is not open to the public, but a comfortably-furnished covered porch at the end of the house is. Visitors can often be found lounging there in the shade, perhaps pretending, as I sometimes do, that they are guests of the Rosengartens; or, if they have high self-esteem, that they are one of the owners themselves.

Chanticleer calls itself a “pleasure garden,” and with this designation has geared itself more toward an aesthetic, rather than scientific, appreciation of horticulture. While a map is provided at the entrance, there is almost a complete lack of the “signage” that clutters up so many other gardens. Very few of the plants are labeled, which, since so many of them are new and unusual, some visitors find frustrating. “We're asking people to pay attention in a different way, letting it be delightful to the senses rather than hitting you over the head with information,” says Voran. “And since at least two members of the horticultural staff are in the garden whenever we're open, the information is still there, if you ask for it.” Adds gardener Doug Croft: “People tell me that they enjoy being able to come to a garden and enjoy the beauty of it and appreciate the different combinations, without all the 'sticks.'”

From the covered porch at the end of Chanticleer, partly hidden behind a border of shrubs and trees, is what could perhaps be considered the most extravagant part of Chris Woods' legacy to the garden: the Minder Ruin. From a designer's standpoint, Woods had practical reasons to want to tear down Minder House, which had been the home of Adolph Jr. and his wife until the latter moved off the property in the mid-1990s. The stone house stood on a prominent knoll and, being off limits to visitors, created a dead spot at the center of the evolving garden. Woods' first planned to “ruin” the stone house, but when that proved impractical he convinced the board to let him tear it down completely and build a new ruin on its footprint.

Completed in 2000, the ruin provides the garden with its central feature, “a hub for the wheel,” as Walczak calls it. In its several walled spaces are a dining room with a sarcophagus-like water-filled table, made of black marble; a library littered with slate books titled with silly puns; and a bath-like fountain with eerie, thick-lipped submerged marble faces, carved by Berkeley, California artist Marcia Donahue based on an idea that to Woods in a recurring dream.

Made of shiny local stone called Wissahickon schist, this massive garden ornament seems, from several viewpoints, a bit too spanking-new for something supposed to be ruined. But Woods never cared if other people failed to appreciate his creation, because he loved it. Maybe this is his real legacy to the garden: not the ruin, not even his overall scheme for the garden, but the free-thinking spirit he cultivated in his board and his staff. There is a pride of place in the staff, to be sure, but also a brashness, a confidence, that has freed the new director and gardeners to take risks, challenging visitors to appreciate more than just the pretty plants, pushing past the edge of conventional taste, even at the risk of falling flat.

“Whether what I do here delights or disturbs, that's not really the point,” says Benarcik. “I just want to instill that emotion.”

Gardening Mentors
Article originally appeared in Green Scene, 1998

Looking back, it's hard to believe there was a time when I wasn't passionate about gardening, when I didn't spend too much time tending too many plants, sometimes to the exclusion of other important activities, such as eating. But like everyone, I had to start somewhere; and like many of us, I had a special teacher, or mentor, without whose guidance I never would have become the gardener, or the person, I am today. The man I have to thank, or blame, for my current obsession with horticulture was an older neighbor in West Philadelphia, Eugene E. Smith. Gene patiently taught me the names of all the flowers in his garden. He consulted with me on my first order of seeds, and helped me sow them. He gently coached me as I planted my first garden bed, in the community garden he had convinced me to take over after the previous gardener went blind. It's ironic that one of the first plants Gene gave me was a forget-me-not, because soon after I met him, he died.

Since Gene I've found other gardeners, who have taught me other things. But I think many of us reserve a special place in our hearts for the person who got us started, who encouraged us to keep going when we might have quit, who transmitted to us their love of plants.

There are millions of stories about gardening mentors, at least as many as there are gardeners. The following are just a few of them.


Most people wouldn't consider blue-collar Gloucester City, along the Delaware River in southern New Jersey, to be a hotbed of horticultural activity. But to hear horticulturist Michael Bowell, 41, talk about his childhood there, he seems to have been surrounded by gardeners, and being an inquisitive child he managed to learn from them all.

Mrs. Colletti grew 8-foot tall tomato plants from seeds she saved year to year, and taught Bowell that not all seeds come out of a paper pack. Mrs. Rowe grew a double orange daylily that he admired, and she thrilled him by giving a piece for his garden. Mrs. Percival's garden next-door included marigolds, hollyhocks, roses and what she called "zee-nias." Zinnias were one of the first plants Bowell grew, when he was nine, and decades later he still grows them, and still gets a kick out of watching them come into bud.

The most influential of Bowell's gardening neighbors, Pat Fitzwater, had a wonderful garden at the end of the block. She became Bowell's main mentor, as well as a good friend and confidante. She gave Bowell plants for his own garden, and took him on buying trips to area nurseries. Each year they'd make a late-winter pilgrimage across the Delaware, to the Philadelphia Flower Show. She brought him to the garden of her cleaning lady, Zelda, where he saw, for the first time, a garden with interesting flowers, perennials and biennials along with more familiar annuals.

Fitzwater taught Bowell many things about gardening: about cultivars, and the usefulness of Latin names, and how to prune roses--and most important, how to enjoy it. "For Pat, gardening was never a chore," Bowell says. "She was always happy when she was doing it."

By junior high, Bowell was already fretting over where to place the plants in his garden, and he was secretly reconstructing other people's flower arrangements. His father bought him mail-order plants if he agreed to care of them, and in this way he got strawberries, lilacs, roses and gladiolus. "Gladiolus became a big deal," he says, "planting them out, then digging them up and drying them. I liked the planning part of it. It gave me a feeling--I wouldn't say of control, but that I had a part in it."

After high school, Bowell attended Rutgers University, where he received a BS degree in Plant Science. From there he headed to North Carolina for graduate studies that he never completed, leaving academia to enter horticultural work full-time. For the past 12 years he has been proprietor of Flora Design Associates in Kimberton, Pa., which includes garden design, installation and maintenance jobs along with a small retail shop. He is also an avid orchid grower, with thousands of plants in a greenhouse bigger than the home attached to it.

Bowell found other mentors as his interests expanded, including Doug Ruhren, a horticulturist in North Carolina who taught him many things about plants and design, and his neighbor Joanna Reed. "Joanna taught me how to use of large masses of things, colonies of plants as opposed to this little gem or that little gem," Bowell says. "I have five acres, two of which I garden intensively, so a couple of plants here and a couple of plants there just doesn't cut it."

Through the years, he kept up his friendship with Pat Fitzwater, though as time went by their roles were reversed, and he became her gardening mentor. When he bought the land on which he now lives, he and Pat talked about the possibility of her moving there when she retired.

Before that came to pass, Pat died of cancer, and Bowell is still trying to forgive her, for leaving too soon.


In the early 1970s Robyn Josephs was an experienced grasscutter but a novice gardener, helping restore the grounds of the then-derelict Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion in Philadelphia's Germantown section. For inspiration, she needed to look no further than the grounds of the neighboring Unitarian-Universalist House. There she met Martha O'Conlon, a resident of the house who was overseer of a beautiful ornamental garden of several acres.

O'Conlon was a graduate of the Women's School for Horticulture (now Temple University's Ambler campus). Before retiring she been a "lady's gardener," as she called it--a woman doing gardening work for other woman, which was a rarity years ago. O'Conlon convinced the 20-year-old Josephs that she could do the same, and recommended her for a number of jobs.

"As a lady's gardener," Josephs says, "you came, you discussed the plants and where you were going to put them. Of course, when they went inside you did whatever you wanted--but they gave you tea, they remembered your birthday. In some cases you even became part of the family. It was a far different way of gardening from planting a yew bush and trimming the grass, which is all I'd been doing before." After meeting O'Conlon, Josephs says she never cut grass again.

Over the years, O'Conlon taught Josephs about seed-starting and other methods of propagation. She introduced the younger woman to many plants, including perennials, which were uncommon at the time.

"I easily could have become a plant snob," recalls Josephs, now 46. "I met all the right people. But it would have become too much work, so I would have given it up." O'Conlon also fought against such snobbery. "She taught me that any well-grown plant is a wonderful plant," Josephs says. "A beautiful bed of petunias is nicer than a poorly-tended garden of exotic plants."

Josephs worked as a gardener for 13 years, until her first son was born. By then she had moved out of the Philadelphia, to the suburb of Rose Valley, and decided get out of the business. "I was trying to make my own life, my own garden," she says.

That garden, covering about three-quarters of an acre, is both utilitarian and ornamental, with perennial and shrub borders around the house and a large food garden in the sunny back yard. In a good year--meaning one with adequate rainfall--the garden produces about 80 percent of the fruit and vegetables the family of five requires. Everyone pitches in at harvest time, canning and drying and freezing the bounty. A small solar greenhouse provides fresh greens year round.

O'Conlon visited the Rose Valley spread about ten years ago, Josephs recalls. "She was impressed with what I'd done, but she thought it was too big for me to take care of with all these children, and that I should get somebody to help me."

Josephs had fallen out of touch with her mentor in recent years, and the day before our interview she called the Unitarian-Universalist House, "to see if Martha was still alive."

She wasn't; she died two years ago. But bits of O'Conlon still thrive in the many special plants she gave Josephs for her garden. One was a dwarf crape myrtle, a plant O'Conlon loved.

Says Josephs, "Every time it comes into bloom, I think of her."


By the time he met his main gardening mentor, Andrew Bunting, 33, had already inherited a love of plants and gardening. Now curator of the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, Bunting spent many summers as a child on the Nebraska farm of his grandfather, George Bunting, who was very much a gentleman but in no way a "gentleman farmer." George Bunting's 160 acres, besides providing a cash crop of grain, provided all the food he and his family needed to eat, a self-sufficiency that greatly impressed his grandson. "My grandfather didn't go to a supermarket until he was 60," Bunting proudly recalls.

At home, Bunting enjoyed helping his mother in her flower and vegetable beds. During his high school years in Manhattan, Illinois, when his mother became too busy to garden, she let him to plant the sunny front yard in vegetables. "In a conservative Midwestern town," Bunting says, "that was not really the thing to do." The garden was about 25 feet square, and the young gardener kept it so well-manicured that neighbors had nothing to complain about.

After taking horticulture classes in high school, Bunting decided to enter the horticulture program at Joliet Junior College. During an internship in his first year there, he worked at the Morton (Ill.) Arboretum, where the curator was Ray Schulenberg.

"It's a name many people have never heard of," Bunting says. "He didn't spend his life cranking out books, he didn't go on plant collecting trips all over the world, he wasn't interested in lecturing. He was interested in doing his job, which was teaching, and maintaining one of the best woody plant collections in the world." Even now Bunting can say of Schulenberg, "He was the most knowledgeable plantsman I've ever met, and I've met a lot of people."

This example of professionalism convinced Bunting to pursue a career in public horticulture. "He inspired me to learn about plants, and opened my eyes to what a botanic garden or arboretum does." After leaving the junior college, Bunting got a BS degree from Southern Illinois University. He then worked in various places, including England and New Zealand, before coming to Scott as curator five years ago.

Though he hasn't seen Schulenberg for years, Bunting still remembers the plant walks his mentor led every Tuesday. "He was always quizzing you. He thought it was very important to know the plants around you: common name, scientific name, family name. He'd bark at you--in a joking way, never in a mean spirited way--because he knew if you were interested, he could drill it into you by repetition."

Schulenberg was a meticulous record-keeper, which is something Bunting learned from his mentor and an important part of a curator's job. "Unless you have a good way of keeping track of everything," Bunting says, "the institution is not going to shine, it's not going to stand out as one of the better collections."

Bunting's passion is for new plants, and during his tenure as curator 5,000 woody specimens have been added to the collection that now includes 25,000 plants representing 3,000 species, varieties and cultivars.

Even with all these additions, Bunting admits that, like most plant-lovers, "I still have an ongoing list of plants that I covet."


"I identify myself as a gardener; it's what gives me the most satisfaction," says Iris Brown, 51, who coordinates after- school programs and seven community gardens for the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, a community development organization in North Philadelphia.

But Brown never would have become a gardener ten years ago if she hadn't met Peter Grove. "No way," she says. "Then I wasn't interested. I was happy to open a can of corn; I could care less where it came from."

Brown's education began when Grove was hired as the new director at Norris Square. Grove did far more than his job required: fixing the roof as well as keeping the books, writing grant proposals and patching the plumbing, teaching classes, starting a garden. Brown, the project's newest employee, was amazed by Grove's hyperactivity, and to learn how he did all these things she followed him everywhere, like a shadow.

For a time she was as mute as a shadow, too, since Grove, a transplanted Englishman, spoke no Spanish, and Brown spoke no English. She actually knew English, having studied it in school during her childhood in the small town of Loiza near San Juan, Puerto Rico. But since moving to the United States 20 years before, she had never had a chance to practice the language. She thought people would laugh at her mistakes and her accent if she tried.

"I wanted to say something, I thought that I could, but I was very nervous," she says. "My heart wanted to come out before my words."

Slowly, she overcame her fear of speaking her second language--with Grove, and then with others. The first time she spoke English at a public meeting of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Philadelphia Green program, she remembers, "Nobody looked at me, nobody pinched me, so I said, `Okay, next time I'll say a little bit more.'" Gradually Brown convinced herself that if people were interested in what she had to say, they would take the time to understand her. She now speaks English well enough to have taken college courses and lectured before a college class.

Once she began asking questions, it became easier for Brown to pick up gardening basics from Grove. But these basics, as they so often are, were just the beginning. Beyond horticulture, Grove's manner in the garden taught her the necessity of good public relations, in a city where vandalism of public spaces can often be devastating.

"People would stop and see the beauty of the gardens, and he would always share something with them--cuttings and plants and flowers and vegetables," Brown says. "He was teaching other people about plants and also preserving the gardens, because if you give a person something, they'll respect you."

Expanding on this idea of respect, Brown realized that the gardens might also help give people in the mostly-poor Puerto Rican neighborhood a clearer sense of their history, a better sense of themselves. In this way, the gardens might offer a dual harvest: food for the body, and self-respect for the soul. The original community gardeners in Norris Square nicknamed themselves "Grupa Motivos," roughly translated as "The Motivators." They were all beginners ten years ago; now they form the backbone of a widespread effort that, with the support of Philadelphia Green, has dotted the entire neighborhood with gardens.

The seven gardens that Brown oversees have themes based on different aspects of Puerto Rican culture. Las Parcelas (which, in Puerto Rico, are the plots of land the government gives residents to build houses on) is the largest garden, covering half a square block. Brown describes it as a peaceful place that functions as an open-air community center, with people gathering to listen to music, play congas and maracas, cook, play dominoes and checkers--and, of course, tend their garden plots.

The garden called Raices ("Roots") includes a mural that teaches visitors about Puerto Rican history, and an "alphabet garden" where pieces of that history corresponding to each letter of the alphabet are painted on wooden signs. In El Batey (a place where natives in Puerto Rico gather for ceremonies such as weddings), the garden is decorated with displays depicting the country's indigenous people, and native root vegetables such as yucca and sweet potatoes are grown.

"We have to demonstrate that not everybody here is into drugs and prostitution--it's not true, there are good families here," Brown says of the neighborhood in which she has lived for 20 years. "The [Pennsylvania] Horticultural Society gave us a chance to prove that to ourselves, to our children, to the people who thought we couldn't do it." In 1993 Philadelphia Green honored the neighborhood by naming it a "Green Countrie Towne," which refers to William Penn's original plan for a green Philadelphia.

Peter Grove left Norris Square a number of years ago, and Brown hasn't seen him since 1995. But he taught her so many different things that he often comes to mind. "Peter's shoes, they're size 13," Brown says; and when asked if those shoes are hard to fill, she shakes her head and says, "Not in my lifetime."

Though one suspects that in her own way, with her own little feet, she has already filled them.


When Vick's Wildgardens in Gladwyne, Pa. closed down in 1989, Frank Hayes says, "It was like somebody cut off my right arm. For everybody who worked there, it was like a family."

Hayes, 35, went to work for Vick's straight out of high school in 1981. He knew he liked flowers--their fragrances and colors--and he enjoyed being outdoors. But his only horticultural experience up to then had been helping his grandfather on various gardening jobs, in exchange for a free lunch.

The job at Vick's paid more serious money, and was more serious work. For years Vick's was one of the preeminent landscape nurseries in the Delaware Valley. Hayes says that, in owner Al Vick and head nurseryman Steve Horvath, "I had two great teachers who, together, had a hundred years of experience."

Unlike many of today's "blacktop nurseries," as Hayes calls them--where plants sit in pots or burlap in settings resembling horticultural parking lots--Vick's grew many of its own trees and shrubs in the ground, digging them for each specific job. All new employees at Vick's were first put to work in this nursery, Hayes says, learning the basics in a hands-on way.

Hayes remembers nursery manager Horvath as a "walking encyclopedia, the backbone of the business." Horvath taught Hayes many things, from the right way to step on a shovel to more technical information such as the various types of root balls to dig for different trees. Horvath also taught him basic propagation and proper pruning techniques, and Hayes still cherishes the pair of Felco No. 8 hand pruners he purchased that first year on the job at Vick's.

After six months training Hayes joined one of the landscape crews, and two years later, he was made a crew foreman. "It's hard to put into words, what I learned," he says. "When you go to a job, you don't want to dictate to what's around you, you want to blend what you do into the landscape." From Al Vick, who was the designer and salesman of the company, he learned how to place rocks with the strata running horizontally, and the principal of grouping plants in odd numbers. He learned bed preparation, and how to check soil drainage. He became an expert at stonework, building waterfalls, steps and stone retaining walls.

"Al Vick was meticulous," Hayes says. "He wanted things done right. For example, he never liked anything pruned formally. He'd say, `I don't care how big the job is, you're pruning with Felcos.' We didn't have any hedge clippers: if it was a hundred foot hedge, we did it by hand. And we didn't have blowers; we had to rake everything up by hand. He was so worried about damaging people's lawns we moved huge trees by hand, in a ball cart. He was very old-fashioned, which was good, because things were done correctly."

Since leaving Vick's Hayes has worked a number of jobs, including a stint as supervisor of grounds at the Annenberg Estate in Wynnewood, Pa. Currently he works on the groundskeeping staff of Villanova University. But he has yet to find another job as satisfying as the one he had at Vick's, one in which he feels free to use all the things he learned there.

In some ways Hayes is as old-fashioned as his old boss, Al Vick, and readily admits that he sometimes feels like a "dinosaur."

"It's gotten to the point that everything's got to be done in a rush," he says. "To me that's bad practice. If you take the time and effort, 95 percent of the time the plants are going to thrive. That's what I was taught. And those of us taught the right way, we have to keep on doing it. Don't ever let it leave your hands."


If I could see into the brain of a gardener, it wouldn't surprise me if I found a mental version of a compost pile. Information, the raw material, is always being added to the pile, since even the most experienced gardener never stops learning. That data is turned over and sifted and mixed with things the gardener already knows until it breaks down and becomes something richer, something new. Then comes the most important part of the composting process: giving it back.

But how many of us, while spreading this richness, ever remember to thank the source, our mentors?

If that gratitude is never adequately expressed in words, perhaps it takes the form of emulation. Because if they stick at it long enough, gardeners who once knew nothing invariably become mentors themselves, spreading their knowledge like compost, nurturing and enriching the minds of the next generation.


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