Glenstone in May

From left, Jon Sander, Matthew Partain, and Paul Tukey.

When I showed you Glenstone in Winter last December I promised return visits throughout the year. Well, last week I got to go back with full press treatment, thanks to the organizing talents of Kathy Jentz on behalf of GardenComm, the garden communicators organization.

Chief Sustainability Officer Paul Tukey (author, Emmy-nominated documentarian, HGTV host, lecturer and all-around proselytizer for organic lawn and landscape care) welcomed us and told us some details that were new to me.

  • That the almost 300 acres were originally a fox-hunting club. Ugh.
  • That Glenstone’s “ethos” is to “be the most sustainable museum in the world.”
  • That its Environmental Center is now open, where there’s info about sustainability at Glenstone. On most days, Paul is there to talk to visitors in person.
  • That when he sees people weep over a Rothko he just doesn’t get it. To him the real masterpiece at Glenstone is the landscape. (Paul, we get that!)
  • That to clear the site for and around the Environmental Center, 11 McMansions were bought and dissembled, and most of the cleared land planted with trees. That must have so satisfying!

Then there’s the story of how he came to move from Maine to work here in Maryland. Director and Chief Curator Emily Rales had asked staff if the grounds crew used any toxins on the lawn and then reviewed the material safety data sheets for all the products, and didn’t like what she saw. So she hired Paul, the well-known activist for organic lawn care, first as a consultant and eventually full-time in charge of all their land reforms, and more.

The story interested me because she’s an art curator, with official connection to environmentalism, but aren’t we glad she cared about the land so much because restoring almost 300 acres to good health is HUGE.

I also resonated with Paul’s description of his work at Glenstone as consistent with his career as a “gardening journalist,” which he described as someone who finds the smartest people, gets information from them, and passes it on. Me, too!

The largest projects going on now are about stream management, something that Paul says has changed his life professionally. The goal is to slow water down and make places for excess water to go, and that’s required major regrading, and removal/replacement of many trees.

(One of the replacement trees was the largest tree ever to be moved in Maryland, at a cost of about $100,000. It’s at the center background of this photo.)

Now in its third year, this meadow is finally blooming as hoped – at least now with both Tradescantia and white Penstemon flowering. Two types of sedges are filling in nicely, too, and the Little Bluestem is thriving after several years of seeding. Previously this was mostly covered in Japanese stiltgrass.

Grounds Maintenance Director Matthew Partain has stories to tell about the process of creating this meadow, all ending with “Meadows take patience.”

Meadow expert Larry Weiner helped in the design and installation of the garden, especially with getting the right soil mix.

Matthew pointed out the No-Mow fine fescue grass growing along the road here, which he’ll cut back just once. He’d impressed with its performance.

Lots of coreopsis were blooming around the art galleries.

The galleries have a great view of the water garden, where John Sander is in charge. Before coming to Glenstone he’d spent 30 years doing aquatic horticulture at Lilyponds Water Gardens in Maryland.

John told us that all the plants here are natives except for the water lilies – because the natives are too vigorous. And the only fish here are the mosquito fish, which have an important job to do. Wildlife he’s seen in the garden include dozens of dragonfly species, tree- and bullfrogs, and about a quarter million snails, he estimates. He’s happy to report seeing only one coin, a nickel that he got out of there quickly. Don’t want to encourage more wish-makers.

Mistakes made? Planting in mostly rock, and not enough soil. He calls those rocks the bane of his existence – that and algae removal, which apparently involves sweeping. (My notes are failing me on that point.)

Some of the GardenComm Region II participants with Splint-Rocker.
Split-Rocker up-close with its newly planted annuals.

Back out in the meadow we gathered at the sculpture Split-Rocker by Jeff Koons, which was installed here in 2013. It’s 37 feet tall and is planted with about 24,000 annuals each spring.

But what IS it? The heads of two children’s rockers – a dinosaur and a pony – sliced together nose to nose.

Adrian Higgins described it and its first planting for the  Washington Post.

Learn more about the Glenstone landscape here.


  1. Thanks for this write-up. I missed the no-mow fine fescue, I will be interested to see in a few years what the results of that experiment are…
    Your notes are correct that the algae in the water garden is skimmed or swept off the water surface by hand/tool — rather than chemically treates.

  2. My large nest box trail is on 7,000 acres and as there have been huge monetary cutbacks to area maintenance, i.e. mowing, wildlife has plummeted. If there are areas where there are large expanses of tall grasses, there are no birds and far less insect diversity. My own mowed 1/3 acre will have 20 bird species while a 100 acre tall grass area on the trail will have none. Studies of the effect of grass length on foraging behavior have proven that there is less food that is hard to get at, so fewer birds. Luckily, I’ve befriended some mowers who help me out and will mow large open areas near the tall grasses. The birds, including raptors, rabbits, foxes, etc. all return. The ticks decline. Unfortunately, non-maintenance is the trend.

  3. Susan, thanks for describing Split-Rocker! When I saw a photo of it elsewhere, I couldn’t figure out what was going on there. I bet it’s a sight to see when all the flowers bloom.

  4. This spring, Paul Tukey came to Louisville, and Yew Dell Botanical Gardens hosted a talk that included great slides of the Glenstone grounds and galleries, as well as the story of his journey as a chemical-free, native plant advocate. Glenstone is a shining example of how beautiful and important such gardens are. It’s an example that all of us need to follow in our own gardens!

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