Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
March, 2006
Regional Report

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Petunias and alyssum fill one of several Mercer tile pedestals in the garden at The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens along the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Florida.

Connecting Present and Past, Art and Gardens

On a March trip to Florida, I was looking for sun, surf, and bone-soothing warmth. A few plant ideas for the Northeast would be fine -- huge pink or red camellias, tan and gray mottled-bark crape myrtles. In Jacksonville though, I also discovered Ellen Biddle Shipman, the dean of American women landscape architects. Really, I was fortunate to see one of her custom designs -- an Italian garden installed in 1931 at The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens on Riverside Avenue.

Ellen Biddle Shipman
Shipman, born in 1869 in South Carolina, was a pioneer in the male-dominated field of landscape architects. Self-taught in the beginning, she became a designer and plants person after an unsuccessful marriage left her with three children to support. Mentored by landscape painter and architect Charles Platt, Shipman developed a distinctive style and hit her stride. By 1920, she had her own landscape architecture office in Manhattan, New York. She made a point of hiring graduates from the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture, Gardening, and Horticulture for Women.

Art and Gardens at The Cummer Museum
Backlit by the glistening blue St. Johns River, the English and Italian Gardens and surrounding tiers and properties have become increasingly integral to The Cummer Museum's mission, explained curator Jeannette Toohey. "The whole kernel for what we are today -- which is a people-centered approach to art, gardens, and education -- grows out of Mrs. Ninah Cummer's charter to us ... her vision for us," Toohey said.

Mrs. Cummer was a passionate gardener who planted the English Garden in 1903, a few years after she and her husband Arthur moved to 829 Riverside. The Cummers believed in civic responsibility -- being a catalyst for community enrichment as well as a direct contributor. The state-of-the-art museum, opened in 1961 on the site of the Cummer's home, takes that mandate to heart, says Toohey. "And it's a lot of fun because that's where our creative energy is; for example, the way we use the garden to generate programs that embody those different aspects -- art, gardens, and education."

Garden Volunteers: A Vital Link to Living Art
It wasn't always so. The gardens fell into disrepair after Mr. Cummer died and Mrs. Cummer wasn't able to keep them up. A group of dedicated volunteer gardeners stepped in. They deadheaded, weeded, and planted under the hot Florida sun. Several still keep their pruners sharp and cultivators handy for tidying the beds.

One volunteer impressed on the museum's board of directors the garden's value as "living art." The gardener urged that the beds with a sprawling, fern-filled, 175-year-old living oak be considered part of the museum's art collection. The board agreed to restore the gardens and provide maintenance.

Another volunteer recognized Shipman's hand in the Italian Garden, which Mrs. Cummer commissioned after visiting the Villa Gamberaia near Florence, Italy. Toohey recounted the exchange. "The volunteer said to us, 'You have an Ellen Biddle Shipman garden.' People said, 'No.' She said, 'I assure you, you have an Ellen Biddle Shipman garden. I'm going to show you the plan.' Low and behold, this IS a treasure because there are so few Shipman gardens that stand. So it's the garden volunteers who are helping us realize what a unique, artistic, and educational asset the gardens are."

The overall garden picture is very rosey, according to Toohey. Cummer expansion plans include restoring the neighboring property -- an overgrown Frederick Law Olmstead garden with white pergola columns -- and creating access to a new garden at the recently acquired Women's Club next door. For more info, visit:

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