Fellows Focus:
Christabel Vartanian

With the pleasure of gardening in three locales, Fellow Christabel Vartanian is a trove of good gardening inspiration. Her gated garden in Far Hills, NJ, is verdant with hostas and ostrich ferns, a seaside garden on Fishers Island blooms with dahlias and windswept vistas, and a lush ecosystem of exotic plants flourishes in her garden in Costa Rica. While not in her gardens, Christabel also supports the important restoration and preservation projects of the Montgomery Botanical Center in Coral Gables, FL, and the Fishers Island Conservancy in Long Island Sound. A longtime Society of Fellows member with the Garden Conservancy, we're grateful for Christabel's support and passion for all things gardening.

When did your interest in gardening begin?

I grew up in south Florida always surrounded by beautiful tropical plants. I learned my first lesson in gardening etiquette at ten years old when I picked roses from my neighbor’s garden to bring to my mother. The phone was ringing when I came home, and I quickly learned that you never pick flowers from someone’s garden without asking! When I became friends with Tom Armstrong on Fishers Island, I began to take gardening more seriously. That’s when I became interested in the Garden Conservancy and its mission.
You tend gardens in Far Hills, NJ, and Fishers Island, NY. Tell us about these gardens; what aspects do you most enjoy? Any favorite plants or spaces? 

My Far Hills landscape has now been given over to the deer and is mostly boxwood and flowering trees. I have a small lattice fenced garden that I plant with hostas, climbing roses, lady’s mantle, ostrich ferns, and other plants I love. Late hydrangeas look wonderful in the fall.

I have been gardening on Fishers for almost forty years but decided to concentrate on growing dahlias eight years ago. I have a fenced garden of seventy to eighty plants. Double and triple staking is important as the winds from the ocean can be fierce. I also have a small rose garden, walled perennial garden, and herb garden.

Top, left to right: daffodils and gated garden, Far Hills, NJ; bottom: dahlia garden, Fishers Island, NY

You also garden in Costa Rica. What have you learned from gardening in a climate that is so distinctly different from that of your Northeast gardens?
Gardening in Costa Rica is “taming the wilderness” as everything seems to be on steroids. Most of my gardening time is spent cutting plants back. I feel like I live in the Garden of Eden as the surroundings are so incredibly lush and gorgeous. I love bringing the flowers and wonderful leaves inside to arrange. The gingers, Heliconias, and palms are the backbone of my gardens there. The climate is challenging as there are very dramatic changes in the seasons - a dry season with almost no rain, and a wet season that rains in torrents every day. For a tiny country, there are many ecosystems on display. The cloud forests are majestic, and the temperature can be quite cold. We are in the central pacific region where the temperature is around 80 degrees at all times. Please come and visit!   

Left to right: path to beach garden, Heliconia, indian clock vine, and Thunbergia mysorensis, Costa Rica

Several years ago, you had a garden in Key Largo, FL, which was donated for land conservation. What's happening with that land now?

I created two gardens in Key Largo. This was before Costa Rica, and when we moved, I donated my garden to the local Conservancy.  Unfortunately water and maintenance are a big issue in the Keys. The garden has languished but still has great foundation plantings.  Rescuing that project is something I would like to tackle again. A project that is doing really well is a butterfly garden that a group of us organized 15 years ago with the University of Florida to help restore an endangered butterfly species. The garden and the Shaus butterflies are thriving through the generosity of many others and has become a glorious place to gather when the Florida weather is beautiful.   

Tree Fern, Costa Rica

You support the Montgomery Botanical Center in Coral Gables, FL. What can our friends in other parts of the country learn from the good work being done there?

Montgomery Botanical Center is located on 135 acres right in the heart of busy Miami in Coral Gables. It has become one of the most outstanding plant research centers in the world for study of palms and cycads. The property which was once privately owned is magnificent. The collection of plants was started in the 40’s by the owners who wanted it to be preserved, and my family has been involved with this garden since its inception. Please look at the website as this research center travels the world to collect and find endangered species, has a vital seed bank, and hosts scientists from all over the world. 

You also support the Fishers Island Conservancy in Long Island Sound where you’ve served on the board for over twenty years. A large land restoration project was recently completed with the ongoing consultation of nationally recognized entomologist Doug Tallamy. Tell us about the significance of this project.
Fishers Island has become covered with invasive plants in many areas of open land. The Fishers Island Conservancy was given the opportunity to restore 140 acres of land to its original habitat. With the invaluable guidance from Doug Tallamy, we embarked on the difficult job of ridding the property of Japanese knotweed, kudzu vines, and non-native trees and plants using the methods recommended by our consultants. The land was replanted with native species and has become a haven for birds, butterflies and moths, native wildlife, and insects that had all but vanished. This project is one of the first and best examples of how land can be restored and acts as an educational tool to encourage other land owners on the island and elsewhere that these methods reap great rewards. We have doctoral students coming to study the plant and insects populations. It is considered by Tallamy to be one of the best restoration projects on the East Coast. We have created wonderful walking paths and a native plant demonstration garden to show the practical application to be used by the public.

Left to right: rock garden, perennial garden, and herb garden, Fishers Island, NY

During the difficulties of the past two years, many have emphasized the power of gardens for their psychological and health benefits. How have your gardens provided solace during this time?

During the long summer of the pandemic, I spent many hours starting a pollinator garden on the back slope of our property at Fishers Island. It is still a work in progress. I first had to rid this area of invasives and unyielding soil and many large boulders that seemed to be everywhere. I decided to leave the stones and work with them. I planted Eupatorium, milkweed, asters, and native grasses and cultivated the native ferns that were growing there. I found serenity working outdoors and the garden connected me with the natural world.