BY JOE ECK AND WAYNE WINTERROWD / Readsboro, Vermont, USDA Zone 5
Probably nothing is more the mark of Allen C. Haskell’s nursery than its many standards—small, mop-headed topiary trees fashioned from rosemary, geranium, myrtle, coleus, lavender, or French thyme. In fact, however, it would be hard to think of a shrubby plant tolerant of shearing that Allen Haskell had not at some time or another run up into a standard. Perhaps most striking were his beautiful leptospermums-the New Zealand tea tree. The plant itself is rarely encountered outside the gardens of California, the Mediterranean, Australia, or its native New Zealand. But not even in those places is it shaped as Allen liked it, into one of his signature tiny, round-topped trees. To enter a Haskell greenhouse on a cold February day and see them set out by the hundreds on benches, all in neat rows, all in clay pots, and all perfectly straight of trunk and trimmed into flawless cylinders spangled with ruby-red blossoms so plentiful that they completely masked the tiny, needle-like leaves—all that was to realize again what was essentially Allen.—J.E.
Allen C. Haskell (1935-2004)
Allen C. Haskell died on December 8, 2004, at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Though only 69, he had been a major figure in American horticulture for over 40 years, and our good friend for almost as long. For us and for all who admired him, his passing is as if a great tree fell in the garden.
Allen was possessed of electric energy, and one simply never knew what would come out of him. His conversation was a startling mixture of unforgettable commentary on plants, salty wisdom on the making of gardens, and blunt, earthy deflation of any garden pretension that crossed his path. He was convinced of his own opinion, but if you nodded too meekly, he was likely to yank you up with a brilliant contradiction to what he himself had just said. If ever a man lived who did not suffer fools lightly, it was Allen. But if you were sincerely interested in his favorite subjects, he bent his full attention on you, beaming with a pleasure he felt as much as you did. He was a most generous friend, and for all his famous acerbity (others will tell you stories about that; we will not), he possessed a childlike love of people and the rest of the natural kingdom. Rare and endangered species of poultry and other animals were his lifelong passion. No other gardener we have known ever left behind a pair of adult breeding camels.
The means by which Allen acquired his amazing knowledge of horticulture and garden design must always be a mystery. As a youth he received a solid education at the Bristol County Agricultural School, and then he studied painting with Louise Beach and Ed Tognari. To the first study he gave credit for his extraordinary skills as a gardener; he attributed much of his success as a garden designer to the second. He could solve a hundred cultural problems brought to him in a week by a simple “You might try…” It always worked. The crankiest plants multiplied under his hands. His configuration of garden spaces, his plant combinations and color harmonies struck viewers with a shock of joy, either when they were privileged to see one of the many fine private gardens he designed, or when they visited the new England Spring Flower Show, where he won so many medals that he decided no longer to compete.
Allen’s early teachers may have done much, but he seemed really to learn from the air he breathed. He traveled unwillingly beyond New Bedford, where he was born, never went abroad, and seldom would he look at fashionable picture books. Still, he seemed always fresh in invention, always knew the best form of any plant (and usually had it under propagation), and could always define the most interesting garden trends. Many, like topiary, he seemed already to own to himself.
To those of us who must merely stare and wonder, the most striking quality of genius is that it simply knows. Allen himself was almost passive in the face of his own huge capacities. Certainly he would tell you how hard he had worked to get where he was. (He bragged once to us that his first glasshouse, erected in 1955, was put up by operating a jackhammer on the highway.) He joyfully put in long hours, dawn until dark. But if you asked him where he had come up with a concept for a garden, or found some previously neglected plant, he would shrug in genuine puzzlement, or give you an impish grin, or make up some outrageously unbelievable story he knew you would not believe. Things just came to him.
‘Simple as that,” Allen might say. But to the rest of us, it was not so. H
PLACES TO VISIT
Under the capable hands of his heirs, Allen Haskell’s nursery, located at 787 Shawmut Avenue, New Bedford, Massachusetts, will maintain its usual open hours, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., seven days a week. Except for the physical absence of Allen’s powerful personality, there will be only one change: credit cards, which Allen viewed with old-fashioned suspicion, will now be accepted.