Lessons from Stonecrop

Under Director Caroline Burgess, students receive a rigorous hands-on horticultural training

byHATSY SHIELDSphotography byRICHARD W. BROWN

WHATEVER YOU MIGHT HAVE BORROWED FOR THE DAY—clippers, trowel, or a copy of the RHS Plant Finder—from the precisely organized potting shed at Stonecrop Gardens, you’ll be in big trouble if it isn’t back in place on the tool board or bookshelf, shining clean or in alphabetical order, by six o’clock that evening. Caroline Burgess, director of 15 sumptuously planted acres of display gardens in Cold Spring, New York, and founder of Stonecrop’s 10-year-old school of horticulture, needs instantly to lay her hands on trusty utensils. She’s used the same knife for 17 years. When not in action, it always hangs on the same peg, and it’s always razor sharp.

If she sounds exacting, it’s because she doesn’t have a nanosecond to waste while managing the 63-acre property, incorporated and generously endowed in perpetuity by owners Anne and Frank Cabot. Cabot himself has called Stonecrop “the most labor-intensive garden on the continent.” As founder of the Garden Conservancy, he ought to know.

Under Burgess’s direction, plants flourish, people focus. Visitors arrive (there are about 2,000 a year; see “If You Go,” page 38) by way of paths winding through woodlands dense with ferns, trilliums, native azaleas, and Asian arisaemas. The domain of these pampered plants extends from the steep-roofed stucco potting shed, command central of the property. Some of the more delicate creatures (South African freesias to Chinese corydalis to saxifrages smelling like toast and jam) find shelter in meticulously kept greenhouses, a glittering half-acre conservatory, six heated Quonset-hut-like polytunnels, a glass alpine pit, lime and ericaceous frames, and more than a dozen hypertufa troughs.

A surprise awaits beyond the potting shed—an ingeniously engineered rock ledge, babbling with the music of falling brooks (with recirculated water) and carpeted in pink Lychnis viscaria, above which bob gaggles of blue aquilegias. A list of all the alpines creeping among these crevices is botanically mind-boggling. But downright dumbfounding would be the complete plant inventory of Stonecrop, a number somewhere in the tens of thousands, Burgess guesses. The task of recording is almost too overwhelming to contemplate. “Someday,” she promises.

The ledges level off to create a succession of ink-dyed ponds connected by a stream bordered on one side by a Himalayan slope, aflutter with sharply sculpted ornamental rhubarb leaves and platters of creamy variegated petasites, and on the other by an almost lime-green dawn redwood grove. A stone bridge leads to even more features, including a rose ramble, an educational display of plant families, arranged systematically from A to Z, and (here’s where naked envy took hold of me) 11 compost bins, more like caves big enough to bury a Volkswagen bug in.

The summer’s most thrilling sight is the cedar-fence-enclosed flower and vegetable garden, a rainbow profusion of unusual and wonderful annuals and perennials laid out in geometric perfection. This colorful canvas flaunts the warm-weather darlings of an obsessed collector. “We have 97 different salvias,” Burgess admits. “I’m always looking for something new.” And from this vast collection, she and her crew harvest seeds from more than 380 plants for sale to members of Stonecrop Gardens. Patrons can also choose seed from an additional 85 rare plants in the collection. Just imagine the labor of collecting, recording, washing, drying, and packaging so many seeds—every variety tempting, so enticing are Stonecrop’s catalog descriptions.

At the height of the season, Burgess’s helping hands number as many as 16 full- and part-time staff members and, this year, four paid interns. From these four (varying in age from their early 20s to 60 years old, and all women as it happens—usually there are both men and women), Burgess expects body, mind, and soul for nine months, April to December. “I want the interns to know, to grow, and to use plants,” she says, brown eyes intent below the visor of a perennially perched baseball cap, “to learn a great set of practical skills, know the plant families, and put plants together in layers to build a beautiful garden.” She’s brisk—always anxious, I suspect, to get back to the job.

This morning she is reviewing the preparation of semisoft cuttings for rooting. Choosing from pruned shoots of black pussy willow, Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’, which bears striking black catkins in early spring, the interns Jessie, Penelope, and Joey snip foliage, dip the stems in water then into powdered rooting hormone, and neatly lay the cuttings on trays. When the trays are full, the cuttings will be set out militarily in pots of perlite mix on benches under automatic mist nozzles in a greenhouse. “Uniformity”, Burgess stresses, looking over their shoulders. “Six inches long, good foliage at the top, stem the thickness of a pencil, and a substantial heel. Get a nice piece of the parent wood. Throw out anything flimsy or cockeyed.” To me she says, “I want the interns always to be aware of the ‘why’ of what they are doing.”

Her inflections, after almost half her lifetime in the United States, are a pleasant version of rural Gloucestershire, where she began the path toward the disciplined gardener and no-nonsense teacher she has become. The late Rosemary Verey, creator of the renowned garden at Barnsley House, was her mentor.

More than two decades ago in rolling green pastureland dissected by hedgerows northwest of London, Burgess, then a horse-crazy teenager, rode her bike four miles after school to muck out stalls and tame unbroken ponies at Barnsley House. An undeniable force, Verey was, at that time, edging away from the equestrian world toward the intricacies of kitchen garden design. She swept Burgess along with her, eventually transforming a faithful stable hand (“it was grueling to haul burlap sacks of drooling manure from dawn to dusk and then clean tack until nine”) into a devoted garden drudge (“collecting ancient bricks for the veggie garden”). Along the way, an infatuation with plants took hold. Or was it Verey’s tenacious grip? Burgess still often thinks about Rosemary Verey (who died in the spring of 2001), the techniques learned at Barnsley, and the example of steely determination Verey set.

“She taught me the importance of perfection, to see by looking up, standing back, considering the interaction of plants,” Burgess says. “She was an artist, flashy and flamboyant and demanding.”

After four years as head gardener at Barnsley House, Burgess was selected to attend the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew for a three-year degree program that taught her the science of plant management, micropropagation, and the importance of double digging. It was here that Burgess’s appetite for plants exploded from a repertoire of worthy “R.V. favorites,” which continue to occupy the best seats in Stonecrop’s flower beds today, to global exotics, many of which demand kid-glove treatment in the architecturally stunning conservatory, completed two years ago.

An introduction by Verey to the Cabots secured Burgess a position at Stonecrop. Even before she was permanently hired, she had reorganized the staff, instituted new cleanliness practices in the greenhouses, and was lobbying for more wells (now up to six from two). Burgess’s requests are hard to ignore. One of them was to create a school of practical gardening that would, in the words of its mission statement, “promote the use of [high horticultural standards] among amateur and professional gardeners through aesthetic displays and educational programs” at Stonecrop.

The dream materialized, of course, because Burgess sees all things through, but also thanks to the Cabots’ largesse. The intense apprenticeship, during which interns live in cheerful apartments at Stonecrop and receive weekly stipends of $300 each, has launched some 25 professionals. Today they work in positions as varied as head gardener for David Rockefeller in Sleepy Hollow, New York; administrator of the Natural History Museum of Guangxi Park in the People’s Republic of China; and horticultural overseer for the Alaska State Fair.

The interns, chosen from candidates who have completed a daunting application, including an impromptu mock tour of Stonecrop’s opulent landscape, are expected to digest a fact-filled 118-page manual, keep a detailed journal, and memorize a new plant and all its characteristics every day. Zeal and energy are givens. They show up at the potting shed by eight in the morning (on the dot or early), sporting appropriate work clothes, personal secateurs, and prepared to stay after five for not-necessarily-voluntary strolls to get to know the garden better.

Kate Kerin, Stonecrop class of ’99, and today director of the Hudson River Heritage, a preservation advocacy organization, says, “That year was another universe. Yes, there were long hours and I never had clean hands. But it changed me. We were completely in tune with the place. Caroline was a gold mine of information, with her encyclopedic understanding of plants and their requirements. She’s awesome in her knowledge and always worked longer and harder than anyone else.” (This from a Wellesley College graduate with a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Cornell University.)

And what is there for a student already well versed in the mechanics of commercial horticulture, like Marcia Smith, a veteran of nurseries in Hartford, Connecticut, when she arrived for a two-year stint seven years ago?

“I came to learn the art of fine gardening,” says Smith, now head gardener of David Rockefeller’s Hudson Pines Farm, 22 acres of orchards, shrubs, and flower and vegetable gardens. “It was hands-on by doing, by feeling, and with a tremendous amount to absorb. Only by my second year did everything begin to fall into place—how to make a beautiful garden, from collecting seeds to pruning. Our responsibilities were huge—there’s really no comparable program in the U.S.”

And what does this unique institution mean to its visitors and alumni? “Well, it’s an amazing horticultural library, laboratory, and folly,” says another graduate of the program, “an amazing gift to us all, really.” H

“I want the interns always to be aware of the ‘why’ of what they are doing,” says Burgess. Lessons regularly make use of Stonecrop’s extensive facilities, which include everything from a conservatory to trough gardens.

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