Janet Draper: A Perennial Force
Rare is the circus that has the extraordinary talent or the vast experience of someone like Janet Draper.
This dynamo of the green world is helping to organize a circus of sorts. The 33rd annual symposium of the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) will be held in Baltimore from July 27 through August 1st. Gardeners of all stripes will be there.
For over a year, Janet, a long-time PPA member, has been beating the drums, with co-chair Stephanie Peer, to stir up excitement for hundreds of gardeners, nursery folks, designers, landscape architects, bloggers and teachers who will attend the greatest gathering of perennial plant enthusiasts on earth.
Baltimore is a good place for such a gathering. The Chesapeake Bay is a watershed of perennial plant production, design innovation and beautiful gardens. Many local nurseries and gardens will be on display during this year’s symposium.
The Baltimore symposium, two weeks from now, will be a grand homecoming as well. The Perennial Plant Association first came to Baltimore in 1987 when the organization was in its infancy. The talks and the tours at the first Baltimore symposium blew the gardening boots off many of us who attended.
We met horticultural pioneers and were exposed to ideas that moved gardening into a new realm of widespread public interest, including bold experimentation with perennials.
I met Janet that summer, 28 years ago. She was early into her career. Now she sits on a prestigious family tree of influential, perennial gardening giants who’ve worked in gardens and nurseries around Baltimore for generations.
The year we met, Wolfgang Oehme and Jim van Sweden were making headlines with their game-changing gardens. They designed and planted huge swaths of perennials and ornamental grasses that caught the public’s attention. (Why plant one black-eyed Susan, for instance, when hundreds look so much more exuberant?) Richard Simon of Bluemount Nursery was a big part of the local perennial scene long before anyone paid much attention to perennials. The Babikow family had been growing plants since 1875. Brothers Buzz, Dave and Paul were turning their focus toward perennials and ornamental grasses in Maryland and Pennsylvania. And Kurt Bluemel was already the undisputed Gras König—King of Grasses.
Janet Draper is a vital part of this story.
She grew up in a rural Indiana farming community and always knew she wanted to work with plants. She got a horticulture “pedigree” from Purdue, and then the real learning commenced. One stop along the growing curve led to another until she landed at Delaware’s Mt Cuba Center, where she interned with Dick Lighty, the Center’s first Director of Horticulture. Lighty was impressed by Janet’s work and spirit, so he recommended her to nurseryman Kurt Bluemel.
A remarkable collection of talent was assembled at Kurt Bluemel’s nursery in 1987. Ed Snodgrass of Emory Knoll Farms, Georg Uebelhart of Jelitto Perennial Seeds and Cassian Schmidt of Germany’s Hermannshof Gardens were cutting their teeth along side Janet. Bluemel knew how to recognize talent.
At Bluemel’s urging, Janet, whose energy for life rivals her passion for plants, went to work for Countess Helene von Stein-Zeppelin’s jewel box nursery in Laufen, Germany. And then she went to work at Beth Chatto’s legendary garden and nursery in Colchester, Essex England.
Ed Snodgrass, a friend of Janet’s since their days at Bluemel’s, admired her winding professional path. “The slowest way is the fastest,” he likes to say.
Janet was paying her dues slogging through muck, sticking cuttings and pricking out seedlings—learning, constantly learning. The work suited her.
In 1997 she landed at the Smithsonian’s Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, along a tiny sliver of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Since then, she has been a thoughtful and innovative caretaker. Janet has accomplished something special with her broad knowledge of plants, her artist’s sensibility, her fearlessness to experiment. I’d never visited before she started work there, but Janet has made the Ripley Garden my favorite oasis in the nation’s capitol.
Even more impressively, Janet possesses an educator’s willingness to share what she knows.
Through her writing, lectures and even meeting visitors on the spot, in the Ripley Garden, she gives gardeners the confidence that they too can have beautiful gardens.
Janet Draper is a perennial force for gardening good.
A special one-day PPA Symposium option is available.
Perennial Primer – Dig Deeper!
July 27th 8:15 am – 5:00 pm
The one day seminar serves home gardeners, master gardeners, professional gardeners, green industry professionals, and landscape enthusiasts.
on July 8, 2015 at 6:45 am, in the category Real Gardens, Unusually Clever People.