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Laureen Griffin: My foray into gardening

Gradually…over the course of a couple or so years…

I fell in love

…with a place and in this place found a hidden gem – a garden. A garden, over time, who had become overgrown and in my eyes – seemingly neglected – groomed & cared for only when special visitors were invited into her midst.

I am quite a late blooming garden designer, in my early forties I began caring for gardens other than my own. - And my own gardens were always temporary and donated to the next apartment occupant.

Summer of 2012 at Stenton's Colonial Revival Garden

Then, October 2005 my partner and I became caretakers for a Historic House Museum, Stenton, in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia – We were hired to take care of the resident dogs - mow the lawns, clean up leaves, shovel snow – basic maintenance stuff.

Spring of 2014 at Stenton's Colonial Revival Garden

Spring arrived and boom! explosion of flowers.

One cold, late-winter day, I rounded the bend and there before my eyes hundreds of yellow flowers hugging the ground. I now know these as Winter Aconite – though in my gardening youth – they seemed miraculous as it must be too cold for such flowering beautifulness!

Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

As my eyes and mind opened to new flowering possibilities – I noticed Snow Drops – now known as Galanthus – everywhere - even frozen in yesterday’s winter-rain - fallen on snow. My next discovery was the sweet smell of Daffodils. Myriad daffodils of all sizes and shapes – what heavenly scent! My foray into daffodils some blooming earlier than others – some with scent - some without. As the Spring progressed so did the ground plane in the slight woodland strip surrounding the interior landscape giving way to Trout Lilies, May Apple, Bloodroot, Ferns, and Poison Ivy – oh well, you can’t win ‘em all!

Ah yes and the ever present Star of Bethlehem – more like - mayhem - for the mower! Slipping and sliding in the goo! Though I later learned our variety of Ornithagalum was older and rarer – not a weed.


Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Every year Stenton has a ‘Garden Party’. The landscape is cleaned up – annuals planted in the gardens – folks party on the 20 Century lawn – after about 2 hours - they leave.

The garden and landscape left to the usual. Few people paying attention and most not knowing the landscape was even part of Stenton’s History at all!!

It too, took me a couple years to realize there were flower beds - with incredible potential - hidden in a jumble of weeds edged with old wooden boards. Little by little – as I got to know the 2 or 3 garden volunteers who showed up once in a while – did I begin to take note. Slowly, I inched my way in – began weeding – then moved things around – then attended meetings about the garden – before I knew it, I was hired as Head Gardener for the Colonial Revival Garden! I began to research archival notes written by Letitia Wright, the woman who initiated the design of the Colonial Revival Garden of 1913. As we worked the garden, the annual Garden Party, began to migrate from the lawn into the garden – folks visiting the Mansion also began to visit the garden!

I was hooked! Now I wanted more – I began classes at Barnes Foundation. I wanted to learn about the plants – to learn how to design with plants! I am a designer and artist. I studied Interior Design – Design and Art Theory – practiced with others who studied the same. I thought there must be a place I can learn about Garden Design Theory – so off I go to The Barnes.

We learn about plants, phylogeny, garden appreciation, practicum, landscape architecture – always it seems skirting around the one topic of my interest – Garden Design – how to design with plants!

I ask my teachers, they are vague and say things like – everyone has their own opinion – don’t want to open that bag of worms – the right plant for the right place – etc.

That’s where I began and here’s where I am now:

As a designer and horticulturist, I often find myself in conversation about gardens with people who have different answers to the questions:

Why a garden?

How are plants chosen?

Who is going to appreciate the garden?

How are you going to take care of the garden?

Or, like the forgotten plants at Stenton, is the garden being appreciated at all?

I am now a garden designer and my company Garden InSites asks –

Why a garden?

– for special plants, for people, for style, for pollinators, for wildlife, for ecological restoration, for exhibition, education, memory, historic setting, food… There must be a myriad reasons why gardens exist!

How are plants chosen?

– The right plant for the right place as the horticulturist may say. A designer with more architectural tendencies may want a plant to exhibit a certain form for structure in a landscape, an historian wants to retell a story – save & grow plants because they are part of a story of a place or people. Collectors may have plants reminding them of the person or an event or place where the plant was obtained.

We ask - Who appreciates the garden?

In each conversation I find the most fascinating are the plants – the subject of the garden.

The plants must appreciate the garden or they will not thrive and be beautiful!

When I accepted this offer to speak, I thought the topic would be easy because I am always having this conversation!

…not so easy…

because the topic, at times, becomes controversial and I do not want to criticize anyone (same as my teachers told me)

– well except maybe the Mow-n-Blow guys who mulch and sheer plants to inches of their lives!

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