J-P Malocsay, Working Gardener

Lively gardens are full of stories, and J-P Malocsay has managed for years to delightfully blur the lines between gardening and storytelling. Malocsay describes his life until age 42 as that of a perennial student, “one who loved university life not wisely but too well.” For him, that meant trading eight years of “dissertation frustration” (subject: Oscar Wilde) for ten years teaching in the University of Pittsburgh’s writing program. “Eventually,” he recalls, “I realized I needed a different patch of weeds, some way to get hired to work outdoors.”

Malocsay’s mother’s ailing house spurred him to move back to his small hometown of Miami, Oklahoma, where the long grass prairie gives way to the Ozark foothills. That transition inspires his preferred style: “rich in detail and dramatic interplay—in other words, crowded and rowdy.” Nonetheless, his early gardens were out of touch with Oklahoma’s native flora, which he now knows to be among the richest in the nation.

Two “accidents of reference” led to gardening stints in New Mexico and New York. In spring and fall, Malocsay spent a month in each place creating gardens for “trusting souls.” He learned on the job, from books and magazines, and from other gardeners. Then, in June 1985, a woman in Dobbs Ferry, New York, paused to admire the garden he’d created, saying, “You must love Wave Hill.” He’d never heard of it. She took him there that afternoon. “It was like falling in love,” he says. “Thanks to what Marco Polo Stufano and John Nally were creating, Wave Hill became the garden of my heart. It’s impressively gorgeous and grand, yes, but intimate too.”

Malocsay moved east in 1988 to join the staff of the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He credits his three years there with opening his eyes to the social value of public gardens. “That romantic old garden was loved by all kinds of people who kept it going with no end of volunteer hard labor. I learned so much from them. It was a genuine community love affair.”

The need to “get serious about money” led him, at age 50, to begin working on estates and small-scale gardens in New England and the Delaware Valley. He resists using words like designer and consultant to describe his profession. “I’m a working gardener, too dirty and tired at the end of the day to claim anything beyond a comfortable way with the basics. I call my approach homestyle, meaning a garden fit to have smack dab at the center of your everyday life.” He adds with a rueful moan, “Clients rarely buy my other core conviction: that a garden worth living with is nature friendly to the max. Not just the sweet-tweet stuff, the birds and butterflies, but the full range of creepy-crawlies that sustain and animate real organic habitat.”

Malocsay’s business card reads “Gardens & Wordsworth—Finding Your Eden, Telling Its Story.” He quips: “The renegade English major just won’t die. Stick a trowel in its heart and it goes on talking, in person and in print.” Translation: clients get their own copy of the journal he uses to document the project at hand and to argue “matters requiring tact and diplomacy.” For the latter, he casts himself either as “J Piddle McDiddle” or “The Old Coot,” both curmudgeons in service to environmentally sensitive gardening. “I’ve never been fired but have often wondered why,” he says.

In 2003, Malocsay moved home again to care for his mother, who died in 2006. At the public library that he credits with inspiring his lifelong love of reading, he replaced “the usual foundation-planting casualties” with an exuberant mix of shrubs, perennials, and annuals. He had done that before, at a country post office in Landenberg, Pennsylvania. In 2004, the local hospital hired him to do what he now sees as his mission in horticulture: “to replace the routine horrors of the landscaping goons with public-space gardens that offer genuine down-home appeal.”

His next move? Malocsay is looking to find “a manageable small house with a clear outlook into the heart of its garden, the heart of life itself.” But that’s another story.

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