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"I am led to reflect how much more delightful to an undebauched mind is the task of making improvements on the earth, than all the vain glory which can be acquired from ravaging it." --George Washington, Letter to an English farmer (1790)
There are gardens of the heart, gardens of the mind, and gardens of the pocketbook, and most of us find something pleasing in all of them. Plantsmen and plantswomen bring those preoccupations together by virtue of their livelihoods. They need to grow that which is both sentimental and sensible in order to stay in business. In their delightful tribute Legends in the Garden (2001), Linda Copeland and Allan Armitage single out dozens of plantsmen, both professional and amateur, who discovered cultivars that have become gold-standard offerings in the American plant palette.
The diversity of the gardeners who first recognized the special virtues of certain garden plants is matched by their acuity in observation. These men and women are on a first-name basis with all that grows in and out of their gardens. Like Elizabeth Lawrence, the beloved chronicler of the world of country gardeners who subscribed to southern market bulletins and who, in her own words, "garden for love," such gardeners have a compulsion to put a name on things, especially plants that seem to stand apart from others of their kind.
Thus, Harriet Kirkpatrick, out for a horseback ride in the hills outside Anna, Illinois, in 1910, came upon a hydrangea with a bloom like a snowball, and thought so much of it that she transplanted it into her own garden. Many years later it was finally registered and propagated commercially as Hydrangeaarborescens 'Annabelle'. Before Allen Lacy became a nationally recognized garden writer, he taught philosophy at a small college in Linwood, New Jersey. He saw an aster in his neighborhood that no one seemed to know anything about, one that grew to four feet tall and produced violet-blue flowers with bright yellow centers. He guessed correctly that it might be a new variety useful to gardeners and subsequently named it after his wife, thus creating Aster 'Hella Lacy'. Henry Ross, who singlehandedly created Gardenview Horticultural Park on sixteen acres in Strongsville, Ohio, has introduced dozens of cultivars through his work on the park over the years, from his white-leafed Ajuga 'Arctic Fox', to his mildew-resistant Monarda 'Gardenview Scarlet' (which he points out is actually a clone, not a cultivar, because it is vegetatively reproduced).
This brings to mind the greatest plant-namer of all, 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who subdivided the kingdom of plants according to the form and function of the reproductive parts of individual specimens. By this method, which changed the course of science's inquiry into Nature, he arrived at twenty-four classes and numerous orders, genera, and species for further differentiation. When a German botanist named Johann Siegesbeck attacked his sexual system as "loathsome harlotry," Linnaeus saw fit to name after his detractor a particularly obnoxious weed, still known to this day as Siegesbeckia.
More typically, however, the plantsman displays an inherent generosity of spirit, and "passes along," as they say in the South, wonderful plants, not weeds, to fellow gardeners. As Elizabeth Lawrence of Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote The New Yorker editor Katharine S. White of Maine and Manhattan, early in their twenty-year-long correspondence about plants and people, "I wish you lived next door and I would fill your garden up."
"The most noteworthy thing about gardeners is that they are always optimistic, always enterprising, and never satisfied." --Vita Sackville-West, Country Notes (1939)
Like Picasso, legendary plantsman Allen Haskell (who also studied painting, once) doesn't get around much. Instead, the world comes to the artist. In his case, the artist's studio is Haskell's historic home and garden center, a patch of Eden surviving amid the shopping-mall sprawl of New Bedford, Massachusetts. This is where the Pope got a pair of rose standards for the Vatican. This is where Jackie O. got her favorite flowers, cosmos and daisies, to decorate the church for her daughter's, Caroline Kennedy's, wedding. This is where the proprietor offhandedly pronounces, "If you ever have a problem with a flower arrangement, put blue in it."
So, leave the highway behind, take a right on Shawmut Avenue, and turn at the sign of the peacock, announcing "allen p. haskell, plants & compliments" (sic). Enter a world of botanical wonders, for the term garden center is hardly adequate to describe the crazy-quilt of beautiful gardens here. Repeat visits are obligatory, because change is always in the air. Haskell thinks nothing of uprooting plants, even mature trees, and moving them from one end of the property to the other, for improved aesthetic effect. As one admirer, the artist and garden writer Abbie Zabar, has observed, "Nothing can stop Allen Haskell from doing it again if he can do it better." Every fall he plants ten thousand bulbs of green tulips. After they have bloomed in the spring, loath to look at their expiring foliage, he digs them all up and gives them away to his favorite customers.
Some seventy-five rare camellias, from peppermint pink to deeper hues, are sprinkled throughout the display gardens. Near one of Allen's classic Lord & Burnham greenhouses stands a huge and gorgeous flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, a specimen more than 250 years of age that, Haskell believes, may well be the oldest of its kind in the United States. Next to it stands another rarity: the Chinese dove tree, Davidia involucrata, which he started from a cutting taken from a tree in Harvard's Arnold Arboretum two decades ago. Also known as the handkerchief tree or ghost tree, it bloomed for the first time one recent spring, cause for joyous celebration among the family and friends who make up Haskell's loyal staff. Son David, a talented landscape designer in his own right; Allen's daughter, Felecia; and wife, Ellena, all work in the garden center, as does Briton John Mitchell, the head propagator, and Gene Bertrand, Allen's longtime companion, also an accomplished grower.
In the gardening world, Haskell is an American original, seamlessly juggling his deep-seated Puritan work ethic with an appreciative taste for Dewar's, chilled, no ice, at his daily lunch stop, Rosies, up the road from the nursery, and shamelessly balancing contradictory opinions, about color, say. One minute he will tell you, "Every color has its place in the garden. Don't be prejudiced...just find the right place for it." The next (on a drive through town), he'll remark, "Godawful magenta azaleas grouped around a chartreuse Japanese maple! What insipid nerds dreamt up that combination?" At the same time, he admits, "I'm known to knock on the doors of strangers to tell them how good their garden looks."
When Richard Churchill, himself a horticulturist, was assigned to write a magazine story about Haskell, he gingerly made inquiries about the man, and heard him described, variously, as "revered, eccentric, New England's horticultural legend, outrageous, a mentor to many, an artist, a visionary, a perfectionist, kind-hearted, savage, able to paint with plants, a plant promoter, a trend setter, a cutting-edge horticulturalist...and a man who suffers no fools."
Actually, Haskell says he has thrown out only two customers in fifty years, most recently a man who insisted on standing in a bed of his green tulips. Allen has a wicked sense of humor, which he says he inherited from his father. His parents made a fateful decision in his behalf when he was two and diagnosed with brain cancer. They were told that by removing the tumor through an eye socket, sacrificing one eye, the boy's chances of survival would be better, and that was the course chosen. The surgery was successful. About convalescing in his backyard, Haskell recalls, "I got to know every bug and living thing." A star plantsman was born. "I'm in love with horticulture," he says today. "I sleep it, eat it, drink it, live it."
Allen, well-versed in the psychology of the average gardener, points to a favorite bit of doggerel posted on the wall in his office:
Oh Lord of little things,
Reward all my labors
And make my garden
A little bit better than my neighbor's.
Haskell is as famous for his plants as his personality, for example his collection of azaleas, many of them more than fifty years old, and none of them magenta. He is famous for his collection of hosta, a jumbo version of which he recently hybridized and named 'David Allen Haskell', after his son. All proceeds from the sale of the Haskell hosta go into a scholarship fund for a grandson. (A Boston-area garden of his design contains more than six hundred hosta plants from his nursery.) He is famous for his "impeccable topiary designs," as friend and fan Martha Stewart has described them, "that reveal the beauty of the plants' textures, shapes, and forms." He produces thirty thousand topiaries a year, among them elegant spheres of ivy, bay laurel and rosemary, three-tiered myrtle with pineapple-shaped tops, lollipop heads of lavender, westringia and santolina, and stately scented geraniums. "His creativity with plants," declares Martha, "is unrivaled in the world of horticulture."
Haskell loves animals almost as much as he loves plants. Golden pheasants, peacocks, and fancy fowl strut within their handsomely crafted pens at the north end of the garden center, an unexpected delight for first-time visitors. The birds are housed a few steps from Haskell's own Federal-style home, originally part of a farmstead dating from 1725, listed on the Massachusetts Registry of Historic Houses. Haskell keeps numerous other animals, including heritage breeds of livestock, on a fifty-five-acre farm he owns in nearby Fairhaven. (Once, when the aforementioned Martha paid a visit and saw his collection of English game bantams, she expressed such admiration that he gave her a male and two female white-crested black Polish bantams for her very own.)
Haskell's fondness for exotic animals extends even to his camel, Lester, whose notoriously bad breath apparently hindered efforts to breed him. When Allen finally located a compatible mate, he named her Listerine.
Since 1949 Haskell has served the New England Flower Show, the world's third-largest indoor horticultural exhibition, in many capacities, from judge to exhibitor. (When he has had a falling out with the powers that be at the Boston show, he has retaliated by exhibiting at the Providence show.) He has been honored by the American Horticultural Society as Nurseryman of the Year, but a hometown tribute means more to him: the George C. Perkins President's Award, given by the Waterfront Historic Area League (WHALE), in 2001. That citation reads:
His extraordinary career in horticulture has made him an American treasure. His commitment to the preservation of his home and gardens has made him a New Bedford treasure. His untiring effort to provide beauty and style to so many in our community has made him a friend.
Haskell works tirelessly, morning to night, day after day, to keep his gardens fresh, his greenhouse full, and his plant materials enticing to the most discriminating of gardeners. It's hardly the most lucrative calling: "We're like a benevolent society, no one really makes any money." Yet it is deeply rewarding in many ways.
A back room at Haskell's nursery is plastered with horticulture awards, the first of which he won at age nineteen with, as he recalls, an all-green garden. But he places precious little stock in such forms of recognition, being much more interested in his next hands-on chore in the greenhouse or garden. "Gardening is today," he says; "forget last week and next week."
And forget all those silver bowls, too, the ones that accompanied the awards he has received in the course of a half-century of masterful garden-design work. Haskell sold the silver long ago-to pay for his son's education in the field of horticulture.