A GARDENING LIFE: Polly Hill

In tree years, Polly Hill would be a gingko or a bristlecone pine or perhaps a sequoia. Hill is 97 years old [at the time of this writing, 2004]. The year she was born, Gertrude Jekyll published her book Garden Ornament; Gifford Pinchot, the head of the newly formed U.S. Forest Service, coined the word conservation; and E. H. “Chinese” Wilson introduced the Chinese dogwood into the West. In Britain, American Lawrence Johnston arrived at Hidcote and began to create a garden. For Polly Hill, the creation of a garden was half a century away.

The fable of great gardeners is that they swallow a nasturtium seed during their first exploration of the backyard and are instantly and forever transformed into hortaholics. In Hill’s case, the seed took far longer to germinate. At about the age of 50, after growing up in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, attending Vassar, teaching elementary school in Japan, and starting a family with her husband, Julian Hill, she began planting trees and shrubs on Barnard’s Inn Farm, her family’s summer home in West Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard.

Barnard’s Inn Farm was a derelict sheep farm when her father and mother bought it in 1927. During their tenure, they cleared poison ivy from the stone walls, propped up buildings, and planted trees. But it wasn’t until their daughter took charge in 1957 that the serious planting began. It has never halted. The garden, which today comprises 20-odd acres of meadows and fields divided, framed, and otherwise ornamented by plantings of trees and shrubs, has a maturity, a beauty, and a diversity she could hardly have dreamed of. There is a holly park, a lilac island, a stewartia forest, groves of different conifers, plus rhododendrons aplenty—creeping, billowing, parading. Hill has kept her eye clearly on what Alexander Pope called “the genius of the place.” To Hill, that means maintaining the essence of rural Martha’s Vineyard—open meadows, stone walls, paths of rough grass. To these she has added other features, all bearing the comfortable aspect of a country landscape. “I could easily be accused of being a collector,” she says, “but I want to make this place beautiful. I have many friends who are knowledgeable landscapers, and I cultivate them heavily.”

Into this framework she has poured a vast collection of seed-grown plants. The garden contains more than 2,000 taxa, and Hill has registered more than 75 of her selections, from dogwoods to hollies, crab apples to stewartias, and, perhaps most famously, rhododendrons, including the low-growing North Tisbury azaleas. No matter what the genus, Hill has a keen eye for the details that distinguish a plant. She championed stewartias long before most people had heard of them (favoring S. koreana because its flatter flowers, in her opinion, make a more striking display than those of S. pseudocamellia). She tried for years to develop hardier camellias (without much luck) and magnolias. Many of her favorites have been named for family members. Magnolia macrophylla ‘Julian Hill’ was named for her husband, who favored white flowers. And ‘Julian Hill’ has magnificent ones—great white chalices roughly 14 inches across.

Like her garden, Hill the horticulturist is homegrown. She received her start in gardening by roaming around Longwood Gardens and Winterthur, both near her winter home in Wilmington, Delaware. She took botany classes and, as she puts it, “made a nuisance of myself, asking a lot of questions.” She insists that she is a selector, not a hybridizer. No colchicine cocktails are provided at Barnard’s Inn Farm, no grafts or root cuttings. Just seeds, sent out into the world to see what they can make of themselves. She is a clear Darwinian when it comes to their survival—plants must prosper or perish. As she puts it, “Why produce something unless it is more beautiful or more hardy or more useful or more something?”

In the words of Tom Buchter, director of horticulture and facilities at the Holden Arboretum, Hill has a “humble sense of time.” Without doubt, her patient efforts with trees and shrubs have added greatly to the bones of the American garden. And will continue to do so, for her own garden is now an arboretum bearing her name and carrying on her mission of testing plants and sharing knowledge and enhancing the magnificent plantings she commenced half a century ago. As she notes in the new arboretum’s brochure, “A one-generation garden isn’t much of a garden you know. It’s in the second generation when you really see a garden.” Hill has given us a garden for generations to enjoy and a model for making lasting gardens of our own. H

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