Friday, May 04, 2007

Lessons from Polly

A local treasure died this week at her winter home in Delaware. Polly Hill was 100 years old, and from her I have learned some important lessons.

Lesson #1 Starting an important life interest at age 50

Her legacy here in West Tisbury is the Polly Hill Arboretum. On the property of the old Barnard’s Inn Farm she began her experimentation with plants and trees when she turned fifty. I have at this stage of my own life taken great encouragement from a woman who began such a painstakingly slow process as growing azaleas from seed at such a mature stage in life. The 1,700 plant varieties that have thrived in these fifty years are a living testament to life’s passion as a horticulturist.

Lesson #2 An interest in testing the edges

Polly wanted to test the margins of Zone 6. She knew the island needed a variety of strong pines to act as windbreaks, so she planted 85 limber pines on the north end of the property. “It only took them 12 years to die,” she mused. She wasn’t looking for instant success, she was looking for endurance. And she found it in varieties of low ground azalea seeds she acquired from Japan. They have survived the New England winters and thrive inside her “Playpen.”

Lesson #3 Patience

Polly’s experiments took the long view. Had she done her work from cuttings, she would have seen faster results, but she did all her work from seed. And she proved over time that you can extend a zone of hardiness if the plant is grown from seed. She once planted a stewartia (Stewartia malecondenron – ‘Delmarva’) from seed and waited 29 years for it to bloom.

So as I go out to my garden today and mourn the fact that my artichokes did not over winter successfully, and rue the fact that my bones and muscles ache from moving the earth around, I will remember that answering to a passion can make life from age fifty to age one hundred very worthwhile. Thank you, Polly, for living your passion in this place.


Anonymous said...

Leslie, what a great post with so much wisdom. Answering to a passion may be the secret of a happy life at any age.

El said...

Funny, I had read Polly's obit in the NYTimes and I thought of you.

There is much to be learned about taking the long view, especially in this instant-gratification kind of world that we live in. I mused just today when feeding the school's sheep. A grape seedling had sprouted and they hadn't eaten it. I thought: only cuttings from "real" (i.e., cultivated) grapes would render anything useful, but I thought, do I have that kind of time? And if I were to use her as a guide, I have 60 years.

So thanks. And welcome back!

Anonymous said...


A great tribute to Polly. I had the pleasure of visiting her garden a few years back. It is amazing what will grow just 100 miles closer to the ocean...MV is actually in the ocean isn't it. Loved her place and will mourn her loss.