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  • Writer's pictureMartha Keen

Janet Draper: A People PlantsPerson

Updated: Mar 23, 2019

A day in the life: Featured Horticulturist Janet Draper at work making succulent spheres. The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden where Janet is the horticulturist, is 1/3 of an acre and open 24 hours year round. It is located within the Smithsonian Gardens at the National Mall in Washington DC.

Janet Draper wouldn't be the first horticulturist to query whether she was in the industry more for the plants or for the people. It's a resounding refrain among gardeners, that landing among fellow "plant people" was like finding new kin: a group with a feverish thirst for everything plant related and a seemingly unflagging ability to talk about it. For so many horticulturists, the revelation that there are other people out there like us--and that one can not only study horticulture in school but develop an entire career from it--is a genuine epiphany and lifelong pursuit.

While Janet knew her calling early on and earned an undergraduate degree in horticulture from Purdue University in Indiana, her real training began in the form of a series of internships and apprenticeships that would take her around the world at the same time that many of today's legends were also cutting their teeth. In her own words, she relayed, "It is an embarrassing riches of ‘who’s who in horticulture’ that I am able to call my dear friends...I have been so fortunate in this fabulous industry, and most of my good fortune was thanks to others who guided me.  I guess that is why I am so driven to help give back and to help make connections for others."

With such a long list of prior experiences and colleagues, it's hard to believe she's been at her current position as Horticulturist at the Smithsonian Gardens for over twenty years. Last year, Janet also became President of the Perennial Plant Association, an organization with whom she's been involved since the 1980s when her then employer nurseryman Kurt Bleumel encouraged her to join. The PPA is an international group of about 1,000 horticulture professionals with an emphasis in growing, selling and utilizing perennials. Janet embodies the spirit of generosity and sharing knowledge that the organization is founded upon.

Our readers might be interested to see a condensed list of places where Janet has worked, shared below. Please enjoy our short interview to follow, supplemented by a collection of snapshots of Janet with some of the wonderful people she's grateful to have befriended in the industry.


•Ball Seed Company, West Chicago, Illinois

•Mt Cuba Center For Native Piedmont Plants, Newark, Delaware

•Kurt Bluemel, Inc , Baldwin, Maryland

•Staudengartnerei Grafin von Stein-Zeppelin, Laufen Germany

(Perennial Nursery of Countess VonStein-Zeppelin)

•Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market, England

Work Experience:

•Kurt Bluemel, Inc. Baldwin Maryland, Horticulturist

•The Plantage, Cutchogue, New York, Propagator

•Homestead Gardens, Annapolis, Maryland, Perennial Manager

•Estate Gardener/designer

•Contractor for Oehme, von Sweden Associates, estate maintenance

•Smithsonian Institution, Horticulturist for Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, since 1997

Image Captions: Photo 1: 2012  MANTS  PPA booth with Dr. Steven Still, founding member and Executive Director Emeritus of Kurt Bluemel, David Schultz former PPA President, then-President John Friel and Janet Draper, future PPA president.

Photo 2: George Uebelhart (Jelitto Seed) , Allen Bush (recently retired from Jelitto) and Ed ‘The Snodmaster’ Snodgrass (Emory Knoll Farms), all past interns at Kurt Bluemel Nursery

Photo 3: Janet Draper and Fergus Garrett (Great Dixter), previous interns together at Beth Chatto Gardens


WinH: Incidentally, the garden that you have cultivated for more than 20 years was first conceived of by a woman, Mary Livingston Ripley, wife of the Smithsonian Institution's eighth Secretary, Mr. S. Dillon Ripley, in 1978. It was formally designed in 1988 by architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen to abut the Arts and Industries Building along the National Mall. Janet, can you take a moment to describe the spirit of this garden? In what ways is its original function and design intent still intact? Conversely, in what ways have you left your own mark in its ongoing evolution?

D: The layout of the garden is a casual meandering path with little intimate nooks where people can relax away from the commotion of the National Mall and adjacent government agencies. The Ripley Garden was originally conceived as a garden for people with handicaps, so there are raised beds, allowing everyone to touch and feel plants and view plant details close up.

I am the most fortunate of the gardeners at Smithsonian because the layout of the space allows me to play and create small vignettes of plants that call out for slow exploration of your surroundings verses viewing a vast landscape from a distance.

Sharing the joy of plants has always been part of my mission so I try to grow something different and exciting. A bed of petunias will not catch the attention of a pack of teenagers heading to the Air and Space Museum, but an Aristolochia braziliensis with meat colored flowers looking like internal organs will stop them in their tracks and start asking questions. That is my hook, and once they stop and ask, then you can share the amazing trap and release pollination mechanism and so much more!

I try to label everything, give weekly tours during the growing season and make myself available to answer questions for all the visitors. Sometimes it is a challenge to get work done with so many interruptions, but ‘gathering and dissemination of information’ is the goal of Smithsonian and I feel that should happen both inside and outside our walls.

Janet Draper (right) with Ann Balch, longtime Ripley Garden volunteer. Photo taken in 2011 after completing the winter fountain display.

WinH: Are there any special stipulations attached to gardening a public, federal site? These may be formal, tacit or garnered from past experience.

JD: The only stipulation would be if the garden was part of a museum and they would want the garden to reflect the intent of the museum. (example: The Hirshhorn Modern Art Museum wants only a green backdrop for the sculpture.)

The Ripley Garden has no restrictions so I am free to play in the dirt! I have learned that people love to get as close as possible to plants for pictures, so with things like a bed of tulips I add a thick edging border of something like Curly parsley that can take abuse because people forget how large their backsides are!

WinH: Whether at your home garden or at work, how do you formulate your to-do list for the week? Do you keep a journal, or consult a work plan?

JD: I normally have a running to-do list to remind me of tasks that need attention, but nothing too regimented because there are too many uncontrollable variables at play. I have learned to be very flexible in public horticulture!

WinH: Being a veteran in your horticulturist position at the Smithsonian, the president of the Perennial Plant Association, and having a long and varied set of training sites and mentors, you are beloved and recognizable in the horticulture profession for the zeal you have for sharing your knowledge. Can you pinpoint a quintessential moment in your life when someone or something helped you realize that horticulture would be a lasting vocation?

JD: I am very fortunate to have known since I was very young that I wanted to work with plants as a profession; doing exactly what, I wasn’t sure, but I knew plants would be involved.

While a freshman at Purdue, I had a ‘guidance counselor’ who told me that I would never make enough money in horticulture that I should “get a proper education for a woman”. Fortunately, I followed my passion, found a new counselor, and things have worked out better than I could ever have dreamed.

Right before graduating from Purdue having no idea what was next, I asked my major professor, Dr. Harrison Flint, what he would do if he were in my shoes. He asked me what I was interested in and my response was basically everything that had chlorophyll! He advised me to take more internships to get a better clarity of my true passions. His advice led me to intern at Mt Cuba Center under the guidance of Dr. Richard Lighty, to whom I posed the same question, which led me to learn perennials and grasses at Kurt Bluemel’s Nursery. Asking my mentors for advice and guidance took me to places I would never have known about, let alone experienced.

WinH: You are known for embracing color, as well as for your attractive and savvy plant combinations. What are a few of the plants you could not be without?

JD: Thank you for the compliments! My planting style and palette continue to evolve. For me, the end goal has changed from being all about creating beauty for humans, to realizing the role gardens play for all living creatures. I am now looking at plants for not only texture and color, but also what services they provide for birds and other creatures. The more I can educate the public and show them a beautiful garden that ALSO supports wildlife, the happier I am. I am not a purist in the sense of natives only, but I am adding more and more natives into my spaces and love seeing the bump in additional insects and birds.

I have always loved grasses and sedges for their texture and the movement they add to a garden. Then add the essential ecological roles native grasses fulfill, and to me you have the perfect plant group, which are underutilized in most private gardens, so I try to showcase as many as possible.

WinH: Is there a piece of advice you would share with your younger self?

JD: Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t know something. People in this industry are so incredibly generous with sharing knowledge IF you show them you are interested in learning. The more honest you are, the more people will want to help you.

Image caption: "Two pictures taken by Allen Bush when he visited the Ripley Garden in 2008… and found me wearing my favorite Jelitto Hat."

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