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The Gardner's Gardener Loses Sleep Over Isabella's Flowers

Isabella Stewart Gardner was wild about flowers. Every April her museum celebrates her passion, and her birthday month, with a vivid display of hanging nasturtiums.

Mrs. Gardner first grew and draped the bright orange, blossoming vines from her courtyard balconies in 1903. Today the Gardner Museum's head gardener oversees their complicated cultivation and installation.

And, as WBUR's Andrea Shea reports, he's been losing sleep over the nasturtiums for decades.

You could call him the "Gardner's gardener." He's Stan Kozak, and once a year he has his own personal moment of truth. It begins with the transport of a dozen delicate potted nasturtiums from a Wellesley greenhouse to the Gardner Museum in Boston.

After Kozak and his crew snip slender, orange-flowered vines that dangle from the greenhouse's glass ceiling, they load the precious cargo onto a 17-foot truck, one plant at a time.

STAN KOZAK: It has to happen very gently, I guess that's the best way for me to describe it. Like I always said to anyone that's worked with them as we're installing them, "Just pretend it's a little baby."

Kozak nurtures these babies to maturity for 10 months. He starts them from seed in June, and goes on to obsessively water, re-pot, deadhead and guide the growing vines up stakes and around strings. Then there are the insects.

KOZAK: Oh, white fly, different varieties of aphids, mealy bug, thrip.

The same challenges Isabella Stewart Gardner likely dealt with. She was an avid horticulturalist herself, and started displaying nasturtiums in her courtyard more than a century ago. Carrying on Mrs. Gardner's tradition stresses Kozak out.

KOZAK: I've gotten to the point when we're setting them up at the museum and hanging them over the balconies and then just as I get to release the end of the plant it will break off from the pot and head down into the courtyard. That's not a good scenario.

In fact, it's the stuff of Kozak's nightmares. He's been working with the nasturtiums since he became an intern at the museum when he was in high school, 39 years ago!

Kozak became head gardener in 1990, and says he doesn't sleep much in the weeks leading up to this day.

Even after the truck's tailgate is shut tight, Kozak still frets.

KOZAK: They go through a traumatic experience, basically, when we transport them from Wellesley to Boston.

Once in Boston, Kozak and his team get to work hanging the road-weary nasturtiums from the museum's third-floor balconies. Curator of landscape Patrick Chasse looks up at the cascade of green and orange. He marvels at the length of the tendrils.

PATRICK CHASSE: If you buy a climbing nasturtium in a seed packet it will say on it, "May grow up to six feet." And these are 20 feet. I've asked Stan, he said there's no nuclear waste involved so he's really sort of a magician in making these happen every year.

But the magic is fleeting. Once installed the orange blossoms only last two to three weeks.

CHASSE: So there's a huge investment of time and love that goes into these. So it's a real triumph I think and it's very appropriate for celebrating Isabella.

Stan Kozak isn't ready to celebrate just yet. He says he's not satisfied with the way one plant looks. The flowers are pointing in the wrong direction.

KOZAK: I was hoping for more of the face.

So Kozak replaces the imperfect plant. Now that the nasturtiums are safe and sound, Stan Kozak can get back to caring for the chrysanthemums, hydrangeas, jade trees and orchids in the museum's collection.

At any one time, the Gardner's gardener is responsible for more than 5,000 plants.

This program aired on April 3, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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