Fellows Focus: Alease Fisher

With a historic landscape in Greenwich, CT, and a contemporary garden in Palm Beach, FL, Fellow Alease Fisher is a true plant-lover at heart. Alease's father's work as a research scientist in plant pathology influenced her passion for botany from an early age, and her enthusiasm for plant science and gardening is truly contagious. Her expert knowledge will shine as she helps lead our garden-study tour of Greenwich, CT, and Bedford, NY, next June. Alease and her husband, Paul Tallman, will also open their Greenwich garden during the 2020 Open Days season, and we're sure visitors will be as enthralled as we are with the many facets of their ten-acre property.

Coming from a family of plant and garden enthusiasts you were immersed in gardens at a young age; how did your passion for gardening evolve?

My father had a PhD in plant pathology and I spent many a Saturday morning peering at nematodes under the microscope in his lab. While other kids were learning about baseball or knitting, I was learning about meristematic tissue and the Krebs cycle. In summertime, my siblings and I worked in his experimental plots on whatever he was researching at the time. I remember long hours spent counting the knots on the roots of root-knot-nematode-infested tobacco plants. I learned to respect the battle of nature. I see living plants as victors in the battle to survive against pathogens and parasites—I admire their spunk!
Now, you and your husband maintain a beautiful historic landscape in Greenwich, CT, designed by landscape designer Warren Manning in 1910. Tell us about the gardens; what aspects do you most enjoy? Any favorite plants or spaces?

Warren Manning trained with Fredrick Law Olmsted, and the two men embraced the same philosophy of the purpose of landscape design: that the natural landscape elevates the spirit of the viewer. Manning was a plantsman first (his father owned a nursery), a designer, second. His planting plan reflects the shade, soil, and water conditions of the project, working with Mother Nature instead of trying to beat her into submission, and the informal style of the plan suits the rambling feel of the McKim, Mead, and White house.

Manning charged his 19-year old apprentice, Charles Gillette (later of Virginia boxwood-garden fame), with realizing the overall plan, working closely with then-owner Blanche Ferry Hooker, daughter of the founder of the Ferry seed company and an accomplished plantswoman in her own right. From the 10-acre parcel of farmland emerged a swale, perennial beds (which were supplemented with colorful annuals that were replaced every four weeks in the spring and summer), a walled garden for experimenting with new vegetable varieties, a rose-clad stone arch garden folly, a tennis court, 80-foot-long swimming pool, teebox and putting green, apple orchard (sporting several varieties of apple, each tree labeled), and walking trails to the river in the gorge. The riverbank is our favorite part of the property. We planted 500 ferns on the bank last year to echo the ferns that flank the walking trails, and the towering tree canopy provides welcome shade in the summer. The spot is absolutely private and peaceful, and feels like a cathedral.
You also keep a contemporary garden in Palm Beach, FL, designed by landscape architect Mario Nievera in the late 1990s. What have you learned from gardening in this climate, so immensely different from that of your Greenwich garden?
The abundance of Florida light, water, and heat makes for spectacular growing conditions. I learned that the biodiversity of subspecies of tropical plants is much richer than in temperate zones, not because of these grand growing conditions, but rather because this climate also allows insects and pathogens to thrive. Biological diversity is nature's way of dodging bullets by allowing beneficial mutations to thrive. More predators, more biodiversity. Plants in Florida seem to spring from the ground like a symphony finale!

This fall, you hosted Fellows and friends at your home as part of our inaugural Salon Series where landscape designer Memrie Lewis spoke with James Brayton Hall about the joys and challenges of the garden art form. Thank you! What has your experience been as a member of our Fellows and community of garden enthusiasts?

In the four years I have been a Fellow of the Garden Conservancy, I have forged strong friendships with like-minded people. It is a joy to be with other unabashed plant-lovers, to let our botanist-nerd side out a bit. I have been inspired by the beauty of the gardens and homes we have visited on garden-study tours, and especially by the kindness of the hosts. My experience has been that gardeners are a generous, optimistic, practical, jolly bunch and Garden Conservancy Fellows and garden hosts more so than most!

You’ve been so gracious to offer your expertise in leading our garden-study tour of Greenwich, CT, and Bedford, NY, this coming June. In addition to your garden, Fellows will visit a variety of backcountry gardens, farms, and estates in the area. What do you hope Fellows will learn from immersing themselves in the gardens of this area?

I am very excited about the June 2020 Greenwich garden-study tour! Each garden on the tour has special merit. Exploring Martha Stewart's property is a masterclass in experimentation and restraint. We will learn tips we can use at home, like a new way to tie up peonies, and how to transform stark tree trunks into gorgeous garden features with climbing hydrangea, to tricks we many not be able to apply but are fun to see, like how a cement floor was stamped to resemble wood grain in the horse stable. She is a genius. Fred Landman's 14-acre Sleepy Cat Farm is divided into a series of rooms, each of which reflects a different approach to gardening, from the sculpture room, to the swirls-mowed-into-the-grass meadow, to the Chinoiserie room (with Chinese red pagoda, of course!). Reba William's eight-acre garden is a curated plant zoo of native species.Tommy Hilfiger's garden (which he has never allowed on tour before; we are so lucky to have this opportunity) at the old Hirshhorn estate is a regal and lavish compilation of clipped forms, aquatic features, and old stone walls, reflecting the European formality of the manor house. Leslie Needham, Steven Sills, Susan Burke, and others all have wonderful surprises in store for us... I mustn't give too much away!

Photo at top courtesy Fairfield County Look, all others courtesy Stacy Bass