The Gardening Years
a memoir by
MARY ELLEN GAMBUTTI | Gardener + Writer
“The Gardening Years” represents the time I returned to school in my 30’s, and pursued a career in horticulture. I practiced gardening as art, creating personal garden spaces for my clients, for over 15 years.
LATE SNOWS PILED UP against the sturdy, metal-framed, plastic-covered greenhouses. March wind blustered down each row of the range numbered 1 through 6. We four women part-timers, in our 30’s, dressed for the weather–I wore a blue down vest and a wool cap—and stood at a worktable in the first greenhouse to transplant seedlings. A large kerosene furnace at the rear of our hoop house supplied just enough heat to keep the temperature above freezing for tiny plants in plastic flats lined up on the gravel floor. We worked without gloves to finesse the new growth from the potting mix into the next larger plastic cell. It was tedious work, but we amused ourselves with our own chatter, and the sound of a rock station. On sunny days, the greenhouse was deliciously warm, and we peeled off layers to work in sweatshirts.
At 34, I decided to pursue my love of plants as a second career. I enrolled in the horticulture program at Temple’s Ambler campus, which had its roots as a Horticulture school for women. I took a part time job in a prestigious Philadelphia garden center and nursey, Meadowbrook Farms. The manager, whose name was John, was an expert grower; a 6 foot, wiry, wry-humored boss, with an unsophisticated demeanor. He moved quickly and decisively as he monitored and recorded plant progress, and directed staff. The main glass-house overflowed with decorative greenery. Impressive collections of tropical plants, giant Begonias, staked Lilies, and herbs thickly populated gliding benches. I was a sponge for the wealth of information John imparted in his clipped style.
When the crocus bloomed, plant orders flowed in from landscapers, collectors, and designers, many of whom would compete in the Philadelphia Flower Show. Mr. Lyddon Pennock, Meadowbrook’s resident owner, held a prominent place in the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, which sponsored the show. John’s grand, yearly Meadowbrook entry featured double borders, Boxwood hedges, a classical English garden complete with Delphiniums, and always the hallmark gazebo.
I found freedom in the garden and nature since my 1950’s childhood, when I shadowed my Nana in her New Jersey garden. I told John I’d like to continue working that summer, and he offered me a kind of apprenticeship in the wide double borders. With a sumptuous pallet of perennials at my disposal, I got right to work. I staked the towering orange Helianthus, the 7 foot tall Elecampane daisy of herbal lore, the stiff-stemmed magenta Asters, and the steel-blue Globe Thistle. I divided overgrown clumps with a sharp spade, transplanted and replaced. I worked in tiny detail with the embroidery of alpines at the stone edge. Some sweltering afternoons, I might be found pruning shrubs along the lush, shady walk, but rarely resting on the iron bench.
Mr. Pennock appeared, and stooped to admire a plant. He produced his red handled Felco pruner from his back pocket. From a Philadelphia family of floral designers, he was tall and slender like John, but had a refined, aristocratic air, in contrast to John’s impulsivity. Mr. P.’s white hair had a gentle wave. He wore a bowtie on his crisp shirt, with the sleeves rolled up: a working artist. His well-spoken, quietly cheerful comments were motivating. “This Blue Lace Cap Hydrangea is a good as any perennial,” he noted, impressing on me his high regard for a rare plant, for perennials in general, and, I hoped, my contribution to their care.
Patrons became familiar with me as they entered down the garden walk. Some asked me if I would care for their private gardens. I enjoyed exploring those lush suburban properties, pruning shrubs, grooming perennials, and devising ways to use existing plants to best advantage. I devoured colorful garden design books, both classics and current trends. I drew inspiration from Lanning Roper and Russell Page, two great landscape gardeners, and from Gertrude Jekyll, the garden artist and writer, who used color gradients and large drifts of perennials. I was captivated by the style of the Dutch landscape designers, who use enormous wild-looking sweeps of ornamental grasses and perennials that change color and texture with the seasons.
I dubbed my itinerant practice, “The Cottage Gardener: Garden Design, Installation and Care”. I worked in the charming, old-world style Chestnut Hill, Germantown, and Mainline landscapes, with their stone walls and terraces, sunken gardens, reflecting pools and fountains, old trees and hedges, flowering shrubs, and all varieties of perennials. I frequented Morris Arboretum, and Longwood Gardens, and continued my horticulture training. My strength, stamina and skill grew, and my creativity flourished in the beauty of these rustic period settings.
After several years, my husband and I bought a Victorian home and barn on an acre at the upper reaches of Bucks County. We carved out our mini-farm, added a 40’ hoop house, vegetable plots, double perennial borders, two little prairie meadows, native and exotic trees and shrubs, and fruit trees. Fancy chickens and dwarf goats rounded out the bucolic setting. One of my goals was to grow “specialty” flowers; unusual annuals and perennials for cutting. The frugal nature and hard work of my enterprise did not outweigh my sheer joy in the endeavor. I grew row after row of bright hot Zinnia pinwheels and Mammoth Sunflowers, as well as the chocolate, sunset-hued and yellows. Clouds of Baby Breath, red and pink Sweet William, and flat headed golden Yarrow were harvested in buckets with the right conditioner for the best quality. The glowing beauty of a morning’s masses of flowers was my reward for the pains of growing.
Returning to the garden was transformative. From office, to classroom, to work at Meadowbrook and beyond, my life has been enriched by plants. In gardens, old and new, I have learned that nothing is static; growth and change are life. As I age, my wish list of plants has become whittled down, but I cannot do without them. And less is often easier to manage.