Passion at its Core: The Garden Conservancy, 2011

Northstate Public Radio (91.7 fm KCHO in Chico, 88.9 fm KFPR in Redding) is in the midst of its Spring Membership Drive this week. Regular programming of In a North State Garden will resume on April 23rd. If you value what Northstate Public Radio provides to you – from the local to the national to the global, consider becoming a member today. For information on how to pledge go to or NOW.

I find Northstate Public Radio to be fueled by dedication and passion. With that in mind, I thought this was a perfect time to re-run a piece from spring 2010 on the Garden Conservancy – another profoundly hard working and long-lived non-profit organization effectively adding beauty and education to our world through their efforts. The Garden Conservancy’s many programs for the spring and summer are getting started around Northern California – with some wonderful talks, symposia and Open Days programs.

For example, on April 15 in San Francisco: Garden Conservancy hosts a day long seminar: The Way We Garden Now: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm Golden Gate Club, The Presidio San Francisco. A day-long seminar on sustainability, aesthetics, and gardens with integrity. $135. Program and Speakers: Stephen Orr, garden writer, New York City, on Tomorrow‘s Garden; Mark Simmons, ecologist, Austin, on Urban Transformations through Horticulture and Ecology; Rosalind Creasy, garden and food writer, Northern California, on Edible Landscaping; W. Gary Smith, landscape architect/artist, Toronto, on Local Sensibility: a Sense of Place in the Garden; Christine Ten Eyck, landscape architect, Phoenix/Austin, on Harsh Beauty: the aesthetic of a tough environment. The individual talks will be followed by a panel with the speakers and moderator. Seminar Description: Gardens that adhere to some principles of design, maintain solid ecological infrastructure, reflect their region through horticulture and materials, and are beautiful in the eye of their creators and visitors, we can call gardens with integrity. This seminar brings together a garden writer, a landscape architect, an artist and garden designer, and an ecologist to remind us not to forget “beauty” as we create outdoor places that entertain us, relax us, and allow us to convene with nature and ourselves. A local designer, horticulturist, and garden activist will join our speakers for a lively discussion of collective vision following the talks. Location: Golden Gate Club Presidio of San Francisco 135 Fisher Loop San Francisco, CA 94129. For more information or to register go to:

Until next week, enjoy passion driven programs in all their forms.

This story begins with a shared passion. Shared passion and a collegial friendship between a man and woman, conducted from opposite coasts of North America in the 1980s.

Francis H. (or Frank as he is known) Cabot, an avid gardener in Cold Spring, New York and Ruth Bancroft, an avid gardener in Walnut Creek, California, share a profound love of gardening and plants. Despite many differences between these two gardeners in space, age, climate, hardiness zone, stylistic inclinations and gender (which as we know can lead to very different gardening tendencies), it was Frank Cabot and his wife, Anne’s late-1980s visit to Ruth Bancroft’s legendary cacti and succulent garden that inspired Cabot’s founding of the Garden Conservancy in order to help guarantee the conservation of “exceptional” gardens such as Bancroft’s. Photo: Frank Cabot, courtesy of Garden Conservancy website.

Cabot as a gardener is known for his love of alpine and woodland plants as well as the large formal garden design style seen in his two most famous personal gardens, ‘Stonecrop Gardens’ in Cold Spring, New York and ‘Les Quatre Vents’ (The Four Winds) in Quebec, Canada. Somewhat different in flavor than Bancroft’s garden. (This concept of more than one kind of garden qualifying as “exceptional” soon become an important vision.) Cabot is even quoted as having described Ruth Bancroft’s cacti as “hostile combinations,” but he also intuitively saw the “design success” and the “exceptional” personality of Ruth’s garden and plant collection. Photo: Ruth Bancroft in her garden, courtesy of Garden Conservancy website.

As the story of this visit goes, when Cabot was leaving – and you can imagine these two icons of the plant world having discussed all manner of plant things during the course of that visit – he, then in his 60s, said to Bancroft, then close to 80, that he hoped her children would continue the care of the garden – and she responded to the effect that it was unlikely. His distress over the thought of the garden not continuing caused his wife, a board member of the Nature Conservancy (founded in 1951), to suggest that he start a Garden Conservancy – and so the longtime gardener/garden lover, did just that. The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek was the first of the infant organization’s Preservation Projects.

Plants, gardens and gardeners are all mortal beings – they are ephemeral, growing and dying back, shifting and changing over time. Perfectly executed photographs, the most beautifully crafted and precisely chosen words, even lengthy audio visual artistry cannot take the place of the actual experience of being in a garden or out in the landscape. These tools, while helpful, will never adequately capture the way the wind moves, the way the light settles, the way the birds sing, or fragrance rolls over you as brush against foliage or walk nearby blooms. So while many gardens of our personal and cultural past will continue to be lost to development or weeds or other change, the Garden Conservancy works to hold on to a few exceptional gardens so that the actual experience of being in them is still possible. Simultaneously, the Garden Conservancy works to invite and welcome the many gardeners and garden lovers among us to take part in that experience – from its Preservation Projects to its national private garden visiting initiative the Open Days Program.

The Garden Conservancy, officially founded in 1989, is now 21 years old; Ruth Bancroft is over 100 and Frank Cabot is in his mid-80s. Like the gardens they all love and are working to conserve – they are going strong.

Garden Conservancy Preservation Projects, all of which are open to the public for visiting and educational programs, now number 16 active gardens across the country – two of them in California (and both of these notably in northern California): The Ruth Bancroft Garden and The Gardens of Alcatraz, on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. Since 1989, however, the Conservancy has helped to support more than 90 such gardens as Preservation Projects. Photo: Montrose Garden, Hillsborough, NC, courtesy of Garden Conservancy website.

I have visited (and written about) a handful of these gardens around the country in the past 10 years – including the quixotic Pearl Fryar Topiary garden in Bishopville, South Carolina, the private garden collection of astounding garden topiary folk art all created and still maintained by self-taught gardener Pearl Fryar; San Francisco’s Gardens at Alcatraz, which comprise the gardens created for and by Army families and subsequently years of, first military and then civil, prisoners on an exposed rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay; and finally, Longue Vue, in New Orleans, Louisiana, the stately home and gardens of wealthy philanthropists and cotton brokers Edith and Edgar Stern, who had the gardens designed by the renowned Ellen Biddle Shipman from 1935 – 1950. Just these three gardens alone illustrate the range of gardens supported by the Garden Conservancy, and the wonderful range and diversity of gardens deemed “exceptional.” Photo: Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden, Bishopsville, SC, courtesy of Garden Conservancy website.

According, “Preservation Projects lie at the core of the Garden Conservancy’s mission to identify and preserve America’s exceptional gardens for the education and enjoyment of the public.” Gardens of all kinds are suggested to the Conservancy for help or intervention, says Antonia Adezio, president of the conservancy since its founding. Also with the group from the beginning, internationally renowned plantsman and retired longtime director of horticulture for Wave Hill, an esteemed public garden in New York City, Marco Polo Stufano leads the Screening Committee for the Garden Conservancy – vetting and visiting and ultimately determining which “exceptional” gardens the conservancy can take on.

While the Conservancy’s Preservation Projects deal with the slightly more rarefied heights of gardening, the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program brings us back to earth – and in many cases our very own earth at that. Started in 1995 by Garden Conservancy members Page Dickey (author of many good gardening books, including “Gardens in the Spirit of Place”) and Penelope Maynard, a garden designer, the Open Days program opens literally hundreds of private gardens to public visitation each summer. Photo: Elizabeth Lawrence Garden, Charlotte, NC, courtesy of Garden Conservancy website.

In 2010, the “Open Days program offers thousands of people across the country hundreds of opportunities to learn and exchange gardening ideas—or to simply explore and enjoy magnificent gardens and spaces not normally open to the public. This year, more than 360 private gardens in 21 states offer you the chance to explore first-hand examples of outstanding design and horticulture.
The 2010 Open Days season begins in early April and extends through the end of October. It includes gardens from southern Maine to southern California, from the tip of Long Island, New York to Bainbridge Island, Washington.”

Frank Cabot was once asked in an interview for Fine Gardening magazine what he thought gardeners learn from visiting other gardens – public or private and his answer was: “I think you can learn something from visiting almost any garden – from plant angle or a design idea. Gardeners are plagiarists, and the best gardeners are the best plagiarists; they adapt other people’s ideas to their setting….Americans are just getting into the habit of visiting gardens. We don’t have a tradition of visiting gardens as a way of life the way the English do. The English are more thoughtful about it. They sit down for a long time and lose themselves, soaking in the experience.”
In this same interview Cabot defined “exceptional gardens” in his experience as: “The measure of a garden is the degree to which it grabs you and haunts you after you’ve visited it…the diversity of the experience is what makes it memorable. I think a garden is a very personal expression, and the best ones reflect the spirit of the persons who created them. That’s what’s known as a numinous quality – you sense the spirit or presence of someone and that gets right through to your core.” Photo: Private North State Garden.

And visiting gardens – all kinds of gardens – is what will bring you this experience – whether those gardens that are open all year long, such as the Ruth Bancroft Garden, your own local botanical garden, or private smaller oases that will open their gates for just one day on local garden tours or through the national Open Days Program. In California, upcoming Open Days this year include gardens in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties this weekend on May 15th, and in San Francisco County on May 22nd. June 5th, gardens will be in Marin County and July 24 gardens in the East Bay, Marin County will be open.

As a member of the Conservancy, you receive a day-dream worthy Open Days directory each year. I always thumb through mine before traveling to see if any gardens at my destination might be open. For more information, visit Photo: Ruth Bancroft Garden, Walnut Creek, CA, courtesy of Garden Conservancy website.

Working from the West Coast Garden Conservancy office based in San Francisco, Program Coordinator Betsy Flack energetically develops interesting and entertaining programs, lectures and symposia within an easy day’s drive from most of the North State. While I can’t always get to these programs, I just love getting the emails for book signings at the stunningly swish Flora Grubb Gardens on Jerrold Avenue in San Francisco, and for workshops like the upcoming June 18th Count Your Chickens – in Your Edible Garden, day at the Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross, California, which will feature morning talks, Farm-Fresh lunch, afternoon Garden Visits and Reception.

From Preservation Projects to the expansive Open Gardens scheme to the one-off opportunities like June 18th at the Marin Art & Garden Center, the Garden Conservancy started with the shared passion of two gardeners, but it continues growing as a result of and to the benefit of the shared passion of all gardeners – from West Coast to East Coast – and most areas in between.

Have a North State garden you think would make a nice addition to a possible North State Open Day? Send me an email: We’ll see what we can do. Would be fun, wouldn’t it?

Further Reading:

Frank Cabot wrote a widely acclaimed book on his building of Les Quatre Vents, his garden in Quebec. The book is entitled “The Greater Perfection: The Story of the Gardens at Les Quatre Vents,” and while I have not read it yet, I have it on order. I will let you know what I think, unless of course you let me know first. You can order it directly from Hortus Press: 845-265-2047.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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