Quill Teal-Sullivan: Preserving Gardens as Living Artifacts of Human Endeavors
Updated: Jun 12, 2019
After reading A Woman’s Hardy Garden by Helena Rutherfurd Ely for the WinH inaugural book club meeting, we thought it was more than appropriate to interview Quill Teal-Sullivan as our Featured Horticulturists for June. Quill is the Director of Historic Preservation at Dunn Gardens in Seattle, WA but prior to that she was the Garden Manager and Curator at Meadowburn Farm (Ely's historic garden) in Warwick, NJ. She holds a MS in Public Horticulture from University of Delaware and a BA in Biology from Colorado College. In the interview below Quill shares her passion for public horticulture, historic preservation, and Helena Rutherfurd Ely. We are so grateful to her for taking the time to answer our questions and provide us with such lovely photographs!
Quill on Ms. Ely’s bench, with a pup on either side.
Women in Horticulture: If you could, tell us a little about your journey. I’ve heard you grew up gardening and were a baker before getting into horticulture. What influenced you to choose horticulture as your career and more specifically, how did your focus become historic preservation?
Quill Teal-Sullivan: I grew up gardening and was endlessly fascinated and entertained by plants as a kid, which lead me to study plant sciences in college. I was studying botany and plant physiology, and while it was all very interesting, it never quite felt like the ultimate path for me. I dipped my toe into public horticulture as an intern at Mendocino Coast Botanic Garden during a summer in college and haven’t looked back. I think of baking as a momentary distraction from the horticulture career path to test whether it was really right for me. I chose public horticulture as my profession because it combines my love for gardening, science, design and aesthetics, creativity, wonder in the natural world, education, community engagement, history, and so much more. There is such a breadth of possibility within the field.
My curiosity in preservation began while interning at Filoli in California. I became very interested in the question of how to actually preserve a living garden – the philosophies and practical approaches to a very complex and nuanced endeavor. As well as why we preserve gardens and what exactly is being preserved. This is a fascinating question to me, and the answer is unique to each garden and its particular circumstances.
Women in Horticulture: I know your graduate work was on Helena Rutherfurd Ely and options for preserving her gardens at Meadowburn Farm. I read that you contacted the Garden Conservancy looking for suggestions on a historic garden to work with for your thesis. Had you heard of Meadowburn or Ely before talking to the Garden Conservancy?
Quill Teal-Sullivan: I had never heard of either before I spoke with Bill Noble of the Garden Conservancy. And at the time, not many people had, as Ely’s story had been relatively forgotten over the years. Bill sent me the little information he had, and I was incredibly enticed by the story, especially that the gardens still existed 130 years later and were designed by a woman. I saw a color tinted photograph from 1911 of her perennial borders and my heart skipped a beat – it was so voluptuous and beautiful. And then I visited it for the first time in winter and it still existed, although just as a winter-killed, weedy skeleton. But I just fell in love right then and there with Meadowburn.
Image caption: This photo of Ely’s perennial border in the Formal Garden was the image that Quill saw, and fell in love with, before visiting Meadowburn for the first time.
Quill shared that she was delighted to find these photos (left and right) of Meadowburn from 1905 that show the inspiration for the cover of A Woman’s Hardy Garden (center)!
Women in Horticulture: Ely was one of the most influential garden writers during her time and a founding member of the Garden Club of America. She is known as an early advocate for hardy gardening and for her practical gardening advice. When you were the Garden Manager at Meadowburn Farm, what was it like working in the gardens of such an influential female gardener?
Quill Teal-Sullivan: That’s a big question. It was an honor, a challenge, an inspiration, a work of passion. I felt a very real responsibility to the garden, to the owners, and to Ely to bring her story back to life. It seemed that if I wasn’t going to take it on at that very moment, perhaps no one would, or at least not for a long time. I had spent two years in grad school reading everything I could find about Ely, by Ely, or about her contemporaries, her friends, and horticulture and garden trends at the time. I tried to put myself in her head and experience her garden as she may have. Sometimes it felt like pulling a sunken ship up from the bottom of the sea – given the condition of the garden and the immense amount of work needed.
Ely left in her wake a wealth of knowledge and experience that I could learn from that helped lighten the pressure of the challenge. Her writing on practical horticulture was meant for the beginning gardener, using her own gardens at Meadowburn as her laboratory. This meant that I had amazing resources to refer to on how exactly to care for the plants in Meadowburn’s unique garden environment. I could pull out her book and learn how she cared for phlox, with advice that still held true and illustrated with photographs of the same phlox varieties still in the garden.
Ely was more or less self-taught and learned through trial and error. Her writing is full of accounts of her failures, her changes in taste, and continued defeat. She gave her reader (and me) permission to make mistakes.
Ely’s work and residual influence encouraged generations of women to develop gardens around their homes as a place where they could have autonomy and express their creativity. Ely was opinionated and strong willed. She was very much in charge. For me, this was an inspiration as well as an endorsement for me as a young woman in the role of directing the preservation of her gardens. I was often directing crews of contractors, always crews of all men much older than me, and often with a patronizing sexist attitude. I had to assert myself more than I expected at these times, and I would think of Ely and how she would have handled such situations. I like to think that we were not only preserving her garden, but her practices, and beliefs as well.
Image Caption: The Perennial Borders in the Formal Garden totaled 4,000 square feet. When Quill arrived in 2011, they still existed, but were infested with weeds and in quite a sorry state (image 1). They lifted all the plants and tried to remediate the borders for 2 full seasons (image 2- buckwheat cover crop). Unfortunately, restoring the borders was not realistic given the resources they had at Meadowburn, specifically labor. So they decided to recreate the feel of the borders in the Picking Garden and let the Formal Garden rest. After two seasons of remediation with cover crops and weed treatments, they graded (image 3) and replanted with grass (image 5). Rosie, the loyal garden dog, watches the work (image 4).
Women in Horticulture: Why do you think it is important to preserve historic gardens and historic plant palettes?
Quill Teal-Sullivan: There is much to learn from a historic garden about cultural values of the time. Not only through the design of the landscape, but also how it has functioned and been tended over the years, the changes that have occurred intentionally or naturally. Knowing where we came from as a society and culture influences how we navigate the present and future. Historic landscapes, even in their ever-changing state, are living artifacts of human endeavor.
Image Captions: 1) In 2013 the cedar pergola was rebuilt, and the wisteria renovated. The bench is Ely’s original bench, still alive and well. 2) The Evergreen Garden in 2018, after five years of slow and deliberate rehabilitation. 3) The Pool Garden. 4) The Home Field and Mighty Oak. Walter, the 3rd generation gardener, takes great care in mowing paths in the fields each season. Hesperis blooms at the forest edge. 5) Quill's back porch garden at Meadowburn. She lived in the apartment above the Bay Tree Garage, which is quite literally the place the bay trees (cuttings still from Ely’s originals grown on standards) are stored each winter.
Specific plants, colors, or combinations for successions of bloom were integral to Ely’s gardening practice. She was also incredibly opinionated. So the plant pallet played a big role in recreating the feel of the gardens at Meadowburn, and we were very intentional about using plants that were compatible with our interpretation of Ely’s preferences and plant pallet. She had a very extensive plant list, so there was seldom reason to venture beyond it. And many of her perennials, shrubs, and even dahlias and spring bulbs still existed in the garden, which was amazing! That doesn’t mean we didn’t stray or use creative license. I actually think my style / interpretation was quite a bit looser and freer than hers. But I tried to keep the Meadowburn feel and the feeling of the era.
Image caption: Dahlia Row blooming at Meadowburn
Women in Horticulture: What are some of the challenges to preserving these spaces? What are some of the most exciting aspects to this kind of work?
Quill Teal-Sullivan: I think the challenge and excitement are one in the same. For me, it is finding the balance between preserving the garden’s history (design intent, philosophies, historic function), constraints or opportunities of existing circumstances (funding, pests, labor, new uses), and the natural spirit of the garden (how it has naturally evolved through time). This sweet spot defines how to approach a specific challenge or project in the garden. And it is unique to each garden, each space within the garden, and sometimes even a specific plant.
Image captions: 1) The Picking Garden in August. 2) One of Quill's favorite late May combos in the Picking Garden – Iris pallida and scarlet Paver orientale. 3) The old cold frames planted with foxglove. 4) The peony rows in the Picking Garden. These peonies are original to Ely era. 5) Iris season. 6) Purple poppies in the Picking Garden. 7) Poppy pods.
Women in Horticulture: What are you working on now as the Director of Historic Preservation at Dunn Gardens?
Quill Teal-Sullivan: There are a few exciting projects underway at present. We are in the process of assessing the health of our heritage tree collection, working with several arborists to evaluate each specimen for structural concerns, pests and disease, and adverse environment conditions. The arborists (a crew of all women!) performed a sonic-tomography test on an old sugar maple recently, which was the first time I had seen that technology.
The most exciting project for me right now is reestablishing our small nursery facility. We were given the gift of a beautiful greenhouse this year, that sits on the foundation of the original 1950’s greenhouse. We are reclaiming the lath house and turning the old dog run into a holding nursery.
A huge thank you Quill Teal-Sullivan for sharing her story, thoughts, and images with the Women in Horticulture community!
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