Fellows Focus: Barbara Paul Robinson

A moment of awe at the growth of her family's vegetable garden hooked Barbara Paul Robinson on gardening. From that important juncture, Barbara has established herself as an expert on hands-in-the-dirt gardening, worked as a gardener for Rosemary Verey, written for the New York Times, Horticulture, Fine Gardening, and Hortus. She is a director emerita and past vice president of the Garden Conservancy.

Barbara's most recent book, Heroes of Horticulture: Americans Who Transformed the Landscape (Godine Press, 2018), tells the stories of eighteen visionaries and plantsmen who have had a major impact on the American landscape. 

When and how did your interest in gardening and horticulture begin?

I never dreamed I would become a gardener.  The story of my surprising transformation and the creation of Brush Hill gardens is likely to be the subject of my next book. In 1971, my husband Charlie and I bought an 18th-century farmhouse, long abandoned, with a barn and a lot of land as a weekend and holiday escape from New York City. We began to restore the house ourselves and clear the land so our two young boys could have some open space to play. Early on, Charlie insisted on planting a vegetable garden in a scrubby field, then left to work for a month in Brazil, telling me to keep an eye on it. Working flat out myself in my New York law firm, and driving up on weekends with the boys, I had no interest. But then I saw small green bits appear from the soil. Having never seen seeds germinate before, I thought it was a miracle! And it is! Vegetables appealed to my practical nature; they would feed our family. Flowers slowly began to creep in, and I succumbed to the passion of gardening.  

What prompted you to write Heroes of Horticulture: Americans Who Transformed the Landscape and what do you hope readers will gain from reading it?

These are the stories of eighteen inspiring contemporary people who have had a major public impact, all people I know and deeply admire. I hope readers will be entertained and educated by their lively stories and whether gardeners or not, believe that they too can make a difference. And I hope they will also more deeply cherish and protect our landscape and our environment and encourage young people to do the same.

Several of the heroes of horticulture in your book have been involved with the Garden Conservancy and all have made significant horticultural accomplishments. How did you choose these eighteen important individuals to feature?

The book is divided into five sections, although those profiled are multi-faceted individuals who often straddle more than one category. The first section tells the story of the three people essential to the founding and success of the Garden Conservancy, followed by two who are important in public parks and public spaces, then five leaders of public garden institutions, followed by six plantsmen, plant finders, and nurserymen, and concludes with two garden creators of public gardens that were supported by the Garden Conservancy. 

You’ve poured a lot of energy into your own gardens at Brush Hill in northwestern Connecticut; what aspects of it are you most proud of?

I am sure all gardeners believe their gardens will be better next year! So much to do and always more to learn. Perhaps the most interesting part of the Brush Hill story involves my ongoing partnership with my artist husband, who likes big projects, such as moving hills and creating water features on his tractor. He tells me he is giving me new canvases to paint upon with plants. I tell him his paints dry! 

You’ve been a Fellow with the Garden Conservancy since 1996 and given much of your time as a director emerita and past vice president, as well as a longtime Open Days host. What has your experience been like working so intimately with a like-minded community of garden enthusiasts over the years?

I had the rare pleasure of working for the great Rosemary Verey at Barnsley House in England on a sabbatical from my law firm in 1991 (and my first book, Rosemary Verey: The Life and Lessons of a Legendary Gardener, is her biography). I returned to the law and my garden re-energized, having learned that I knew more than I thought I did when I went there but how much more there was to learn. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, we are all always young gardeners. The Garden Conservancy has been a joy to be part of from its early days, working to not only preserve exceptional American gardens, but spreading the joy of gardening and education to a wider audience. The Open Days Program is a gift to us all – I always learn from other gardens as well as from the visitors to my garden when it is open. 

Barbara's new book is available at this link:  Heroes of Horticulture: Americans Who Transformed the Landscape.


Photos from top of this article, left to right: Barbara Paul Robinson;
three of the "Heroes of Horticulture" profiled in Barbara's book - Frank Cabot (photo by Marina Schinz), Antonia Adezio, and Tom Armstrong; the rose walk and the folly in the serpentine border at Barbara Paul and Charles Raskob Robinson's Brush Hill gardens, Washington, CT