Pam Harper died last week in her home in Seaford, Virginia at the age of 93 after a short illness; and the horticultural community who knew her and loved her shared a collective sigh — as well as sharing hundreds of emails and texts alerting colleagues and friends worldwide. ‘Another giant says goodbye.’ wrote Tony Avent on the Plant Delights blog on Friday, echoing the thoughts of so many when he writes “It’s hard to describe what Pam meant to me.”
In unexpected bittersweet moments this week my mind has slipped back to Pam and the serenity of her world there on Chisman Creek — a gentle, wide waterway that empties into the Chesapeake Bay.
Curiously, my thoughts go not first to her garden, but to the colony of herons that made the tall pines in her garden, theirs. I have thought of quiet, early mornings sipping coffee on a deck that faced the water, watching these graceful birds circle and nest, challenge and protect. And I have thought of the joy she took in them.
A Curious and Dedicated Gardener
By rights, her garden should be top of mind. A slow-designed two-acre laboratory of rarities and Can-I-Grow-That’s – all nestled into an aging Seaford, Virginia subdivision where only a modest split-rail fence separates ordinary street from a botanical proving ground.
Her current garden is not abandoned, as one would be forgiven for thinking. Pam managed it with help up until a few weeks ago – friends have helped out since. It awaits a new life and a new steward — and the same friends, with the help of her son, are putting effort into the search for one. This is a garden alive with a lifetime’s experience and careful curation.
“That’s a thug.” She would say as we walked, pointing at one plant or another whose number she had after 55 years of working with it. Sharply – as if her words would wither it in shame; and then grabbing a shovel to shave off a bit for me. After all it was a good plant and it needed sharing.
Too many to list here. I have a large variegated Rohdea japonica from Pam, Iris tectorum ‘Alba’, Trachystemnon orientalis, a scarlet Hedychium, Arum italicum ‘Pamela Harper’ — one of her many namesakes; and a sport of a Sheffield mum pulled up roughly and handed to me. “What is the name?” I asked dutifully. She laughed. “You can name it anything you like, there are so many. Name it ‘Marianne!” Each autumn, I do.
In the last few years she trusted me to wield the shovel, and often directed me outside to ‘go take a piece of something I’d admired earlier walking the ever-winding paths together. My Subaru and my brain would be filled to bursting after a weekend with Pam. And yet my visits were too few.
A Fierce Competitor
I think of her small study, with thousands of 35mm slides neatly arranged on modest shelves ready to be re-homed for posterity at the JC Raulston Arboretum. She was a pioneer in her profession and she knew it. In the seventies, eighties, and nineties, few others were carefully photographing and documenting individual perennials with their correct taxonomic names attached – even fewer were taken by gardeners who knew the plants well – and magazines and books were in need of those shots.
“It was me and Derek Fell.” She told me. “I was fortunate to be doing the right thing at the right time.”
She knew her value, and fought for it, a woman in a man’s world. “To build her career,” Tony writes in his post, “Pam didn’t just knock on wood, she continually shattered glass ceilings.”
She was undisputedly a master in her field – a field she had not studied at university, a field for which she had no official credentials besides the ones she built herself. Five books, hundreds of magazine articles, a recognized library of horticultural photos, international speaking tours…encyclopedic knowledge from endless hours of self-study and real world experience.
She had come to the heat and humidity of the Tidewater from England in 1968 – a young mother to Nick, a wife to her husband Patrick – and had built a career from whole cloth out of a deeply academic desire to understand plants and their place in gardens. She told me she almost relished the occasional moments at conferences when she’d be introduced in circles by stumbling colleagues searching for some institutional connection to justify her presence. “That was always worse in the States,” she said. “Americans are very degree-fixated.”
A Clever Storyteller
She felt surprised sometimes that she’d been widowed more than twenty years, and treasured the mid-century modern furniture her husband Patrick had custom built for their home decades before. I’d sit in the serenity of her living room on magical, time-bending weekends away – no television or music or screens to distract the conversation – and she’d relate stories of the old garden writing days and speaking circuit.
The shenanigans at conference hotels, the intrigues and the gossip, the rush of meeting horticultural heroes – the excitement in recognizing she could share something that others wanted to hear. She had lectured internationally with Chatto; with Lloyd and with Verey during the grand old days of book tours with budgets. Her books were popular, and she was proud to be bringing in a good income at the height of her career.
I’d lap it up – bone weary of a digital age that gives its creatures little time for deep study and reflection. Pam was fascinated by the differences in media between her day and mine, and thankful that she hadn’t had to navigate the ever-distracted marketplace; but she was also thankful for the technological miracle of email that kept her connected — with desperately failing eyesight — to those she cared for.
A Loyal Correspondent
Fellow Garden Ranter Allen Bush was one. Allen and I shared memories of Pam over the phone on Sunday morning, finding commonality in her innate talent as a mentor.
“[She]… never minced words or spared encouragement.” says Allen in a subsequent email. “I met Pam in the mid-1980s at one of the first meetings of the Perennial Plant Association. She, along with Fred and Mary Ann McGourty, Lynden Miller, Allen Lacy, Pierre Bennerup and Kurt Bluemel, opened their arms and embraced my fledgling career. I am extending her gift with a young horticulturist I mentor. Pam would be pleased.”
And from author Brian Bixley of Lilac Tree Farm in Ontario – “She was a remarkable correspondent, her comments amusingly situated between approval and down-to-earth correction…I shall deeply miss her thoughtful friendship.”
From plant explorer and author Dan Hinkley in Seattle: “I have kept all of her letters tucked within her books, my method of filing away correspondence from all of the greats…she was a great. I deeply admired her and her gentleness and astuteness.”
Several years ago, I had the joy of witnessing a reunion between Pam and noted author and speaker Ruth Rogers Clausen at Pam’s garden after a garden writers’ event nearby. As fellow ex-pat Brits on the speaking circuit, “we had much in common” says Clausen, and the two lectured at many conferences across the States. “Pam was a consummate professional and I believe loved every minute of the garden as well as sharing it and her expertise… I shall miss Pam, she was a pioneer of Perennial Gardening in the U.S.”
She did love every minute. Becky Heath of Brent & Becky’s Bulbs told me that on their last brief but beautiful visit to her before she died, Pam said that this past spring was the loveliest she could ever remember in her Seaford garden, because it was cool, wet and long. Pam could only see light and colors and vague shapes in the last few years, and yet her positivity and enthusiasm in the pursuit of greater knowledge and experience never wavered.
Her garden. Her family. Her books. Her career. Her colleagues and friends. All this and yet I cannot stop thinking about the herons that swirled and dipped over a garden where time would stand still for a weekend away. Focused, capable, steadfast, strong. That was Pam. I and so many others are honored to have known her for a short time on this Earth. – MW
Pam’s books are no longer in print, but are still valuable to students of horticulture and design. I urge you to look them up through your favorite second-hand sources:
The Story of a Garden. Pelham Books Ltd. 1972
Perennials; How to Select, Grow, and Enjoy. HP Books. 1982
Designing with Perennials. Macmillan. 1991
Color Echoes: Harmonizing Color in The Garden. Macmillan. 1994
Time-Tested Plants: 30 Years in A Four-Season Garden. Timber Press. 2000