Society of Fellows Spotlight: Daisy Helman

Excerpted from our February 2016 Society of Fellows e-Newsletter

What’s in a name? Just ask Daisy Helman, who says that gardening has been in her blood since her childhood days in Northern California. “My mom was always gardening,” says Helman. “It was part of our existence; interwoven into our daily lives.” Daisy credits her love of gardening, in large part, to her mother, who she claims is “an in-the-dirt kind of gardener who has never been afraid to let nature be as it is.”


It seemed only fitting that when, many years later, Daisy purchased a home on Martha’s Vineyard and set about designing her garden, her mother was there to lend a helping hand. “It was nice to be able to share that with her. We just dug right in. She helped me with so many aspects of the process.”

Helman also recruited Diane Kostial McGuire, renowned landscape architect, author, and one of the founders of the Radcliffe Seminars in Landscape Design Program, to collaborate with her in designing the gardens. A west-to-east-coast “transplant” like Daisy, McGuire helped lay out a garden that was protected from the elements and did not compete with the natural beauty of the property—a private garden with formal bones.

Daisy clearly loves her garden. “It’s a big rectangle with square and rectangular beds, all very orderly and symmetrical, but with a little bit of managed chaos,” she says in a way that lets us know she is both pleased and proud. Some of the beds contain herbs; some flowers; some vegetables, and some are mixed.

Her favorite features are the "etceteras" (pictured below)—four semicircular stone walls that house, among other things, chameleons, figs, and other plants that tend to thrive well in Helman’s native California but not necessarily on Martha’s Vineyard. Clematis gracefully creeps up the interior surface of one of the walls, while stands of fruit trees and potted herbaceous varieties line the approaching walkways.

Today, Daisy divides her treasured time in the garden (of which, she not surprisingly says there is never enough of) between the Martha’s Vineyard garden and a twelfth-floor rooftop garden at her apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

She says the two are obviously very different and that each requires specific approaches to planning and maintenance. “With roof gardens, you need to be super aware of your plant choices. For example, I used boxwoods in my roof garden and now I have to take them out. They just don’t work there.” Watering issues need also be carefully considered. “I was happy that I got one pear from my pear tree last season."

Daisy does not hesitate to name her three favorite plants. “Magnolia trees because I love their fragrance; wild red cornflowers because I just love the way they look, and orange trees because nothing makes me happier.”

Naming her favorite things about gardening, however, is not as easy. “Truly, it is so hard to say what I like best,” responds Helman. “It is almost impossible. I love everything about the entire process, from going to the nursery and selecting my plants to cleaning up and organizing my tools.”

She especially loves to garden in the early morning hours. For her, it is a very personal experience, one that is reflective and meditative. “The sense of cultivating and tending to something is very, very rewarding,” she says.

Fortunately Daisy also enjoys sharing her garden with others. After being introduced to the Garden Conservancy years ago by her mother and becoming a Society of Fellows member in 2013, she opened her Martha's Vineyard garden to the public through our Open Days program in the summer of 2014.

One of her favorite things about the Open Days experience was the communal aspect and feel. “It was a gorgeous day and it seemed like people were having the best time just walking around and interacting with one another. And it was so much fun to give kids things from the vegetable garden…you could tell that they were so excited,” she says.

That love of sharing perhaps inspired or, at the very least, contributed to one of Daisy’s most ambitious projects to date:  the 2015 launch of Garden Collage, an online gardening lifestyle publication aimed at bringing the garden into people’s lives from the farm to the fire escape.

Garden Collage’s audience is broad-based, comprised of gardeners, foodies, herbalists, nature enthusiasts and, according to their website, “wanderers and curious minds.” It offers diverse information on gardening, the farm-to-table movement, plant-based beauty products and natural skincare, environmental policy and advocacy, and travel recommendations, just to name a few.

Last fall, Garden Collage provided complimentary seed packs (pictured below) and canvas tote bags to all those who attended our illustrated talks with garden designer Arne Maynard in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In addition, they interviewed Maynard and featured him on their website during the week of his West Coast presentations.


“There didn’t seem to be anything out there that talked about the garden in a multigenerational way,” remarks Helman, who says that when her children were younger, she always traveled with them and made gardens accessible to them. “I wanted to continue that, but in a bigger way, to make gardens relevant and meaningful to everyone because, when you think about it, connecting with nature can really connect us with so many other things.”

We look forward to future collaborations with Daisy, who so eloquently reminds us that “…we all assemble under the same green canopy—this idea that there is a value in watering a living thing."

Read other recent profiles of members of our Society of Fellows.