Janet Draper: A Perennial Force

Janet Draper at the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden.
Janet Draper at the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden.

Rare is the circus that has the extraordinary talent or the vast experience of someone like Janet Draper.

This dynamo of the green world is helping to organize a circus of sorts. The 33rd annual symposium of the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) will be held in Baltimore from July 27 through August 1st. Gardeners of all stripes will be there.

For over a year, Janet, a long-time PPA member, has been beating the drums, with co-chair Stephanie Peer, to stir up excitement for hundreds of gardeners, nursery folks, designers, landscape architects, bloggers and teachers who will attend the greatest gathering of perennial plant enthusiasts on earth.

Janet and Elvis (a.k.a. Neil Diboll) at North Creek Nurseries during the 2008 Philadelphia PPA symposium.
Janet and Elvis (a.k.a. Neil Diboll) at North Creek Nurseries during the 2008 Philadelphia PPA symposium.

Baltimore is a good place for such a gathering. The Chesapeake Bay is a watershed of perennial plant production, design innovation and beautiful gardens. Many local nurseries and gardens will be on display during this year’s symposium.

The Baltimore symposium, two weeks from now, will be a grand homecoming as well. The Perennial Plant Association first came to Baltimore in 1987 when the organization was in its infancy. The talks and the tours at the first Baltimore symposium blew the gardening boots off many of us who attended.

Janet and Allan Armitage at the MANTS trade show in Baltimore in  January 2015.
Janet and Allan Armitage at the MANTS trade show in Baltimore in January 2015.

We met horticultural pioneers and were exposed to ideas that moved gardening into a new realm of widespread public interest, including bold experimentation with perennials.

I met Janet that summer, 28 years ago. She was early into her career. Now she sits on a prestigious family tree of influential, perennial gardening giants who’ve worked in gardens and nurseries around Baltimore for generations.

Janet and Simple at the NYC PPA symposium in 2004.
Janet and Simple at the NYC PPA symposium in 2004.

The year we met, Wolfgang Oehme and Jim van Sweden were making headlines with their game-changing gardens. They designed and planted huge swaths of perennials and ornamental grasses that caught the public’s attention. (Why plant one black-eyed Susan, for instance, when hundreds look so much more exuberant?) Richard Simon of Bluemount Nursery was a big part of the local perennial scene long before anyone paid much attention to perennials. The Babikow family had been growing plants since 1875. Brothers Buzz, Dave and Paul were turning their focus toward perennials and ornamental grasses in Maryland and Pennsylvania. And Kurt Bluemel was already the undisputed Gras König—King of Grasses.

Janet Draper is a vital part of this story.

She grew up in a rural Indiana farming community and always knew she wanted to work with plants. She got a horticulture “pedigree” from Purdue, and then the real learning commenced. One stop along the growing curve led to another until she landed at Delaware’s Mt Cuba Center, where she interned with Dick Lighty, the Center’s first Director of Horticulture. Lighty was impressed by Janet’s work and spirit, so he recommended her to nurseryman Kurt Bluemel.

A remarkable collection of talent was assembled at Kurt Bluemel’s nursery in 1987. Ed Snodgrass of Emory Knoll Farms, Georg Uebelhart of Jelitto Perennial Seeds and Cassian Schmidt of Germany’s Hermannshof Gardens were cutting their teeth along side Janet. Bluemel knew how to recognize talent.

Janet Draper and Georg Uebelhart in 1987.
Janet Draper and Georg Uebelhart in 1987.

At Bluemel’s urging, Janet, whose energy for life rivals her passion for plants, went to work for Countess Helene von Stein-Zeppelin’s jewel box nursery in Laufen, Germany. And then she went to work at Beth Chatto’s legendary garden and nursery in Colchester, Essex England.

Ed Snodgrass, a friend of Janet’s since their days at Bluemel’s, admired her winding professional path. “The slowest way is the fastest,” he likes to say.

Janet was paying her dues slogging through muck, sticking cuttings and pricking out seedlings—learning, constantly learning. The work suited her.

Green wall, full of succulents, at the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden.
Green wall, full of succulents, at the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden.

In 1997 she landed at the Smithsonian’s Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, along a tiny sliver of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Since then, she has been a thoughtful and innovative caretaker. Janet has accomplished something special with her broad knowledge of plants, her artist’s sensibility, her fearlessness to experiment. I’d never visited before she started work there, but Janet has made the Ripley Garden my favorite oasis in the nation’s capitol.

Even more impressively, Janet possesses an educator’s willingness to share what she knows.

Through her writing, lectures and even meeting visitors on the spot, in the Ripley Garden, she gives gardeners the confidence that they too can have beautiful gardens.

Janet Draper is a perennial force for gardening good.

A special one-day PPA Symposium option is available.

Perennial Primer – Dig Deeper!
July 27th 8:15 am – 5:00 pm

The one day seminar serves home gardeners, master gardeners, professional gardeners, green industry professionals, and landscape enthusiasts. 


  1. Excellent post, and all true, from what I’ve seen of Janet over the years. She’s pretty awesome.

    I’ll be at the PPA on Wednesday for the residential design tour and big dinner, for which I’m hoping you’ll be my date, Allen. You can assure Rose that I’m harmless.

  2. Btw, for anyone nervous about going to Baltimore, lighten up! Also, the conference won’t be held in or go anywhere near the troubled neighborhood you saw on TV, endlessly.

  3. The Ripley Garden is one of my favorite gardens, and Janet is one of my favorite gardeners–thanks for filling in a bit of her background that I was completely unaware of!

  4. I’m so excited I can hardly stand it! Attending the PPA symposium is like sitting in the dugout at the all star game. And this year’s educational sessions look ESPECIALLY strong. There is simply nothing else like this event. And, of course, the incomparable Janet Draper… we all owe her a debt of gratitude. Looking forward to seeing everyone soon!

  5. Thanks Allen for the wonderful profile of Janet. As you said she’s a super keen gardener, mentor, organizer and friend.
    Lots of folks vying to be President of the Janet Draper fan club!!

  6. Janet is a new gardening friend for me and I’m thrilled to have gotten to know her a little better. Allen’s piece highlights her credentials and horticultural background that helps explain her passion and expertise. Can’t wait to see everyone in Baltimore.

  7. Thank you for the heads up on the symposium. Gardening is very rewarding and Janet is at the top of the game. Sounds like she has a lot of valuable information to share. This was a great read!

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