The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Joanna's Hands

Joanna Reed sent me this picture along with her Christmas card in 2000, less than two years before she died at the age of 85. I grew up in Malvern, PA, but it took me 16 years after moving to Colorado and then New Hampshire to find a gardening mentor in my home town.

Joanna and her husband, George, moved to their home, Longview Farm, in Malvern in 1940. The house was built in 1780 and was in desperate need of repair when they bought it. Joanna's gardening career began when she had a chance meeting with Dr. Albert C. Barnes. Dr. Barnes collected fine art and formed the legendary Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA and his wife, Laura, had launched a tuition-free school of horticulture at the Barnes Foundation Arboretum. Dr. Barnes had car trouble in front of the Reeds' house and asked to use their phone. While waiting for a tow truck, Dr. Barnes convinced Joanna to enroll in the first class at the horticulture school and she began to study and propagate woody plants.

I had heard about Joanna and finally met her in 1996. I was just beginning to make my own garden and she encouraged me to learn my shrubs and trees. I was inspired by the huge katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, that she had propagated from her classes some 50 years earlier. It was in her garden that I saw hellebores and epimediums for the first time. I was also introduced to one of my favorite trees, Magnolia sieboldii in Joanna's garden.

I got my own katsura tree in 1997. When I was visiting Charles O. Cresson, another wonderful and very generous gardener from Swarthmore, PA, and he offered me a 3" tall katsura seedling. I planted it on axis with wooden steps to the lower woodland garden and waited. Last spring, I installed the French doors on that same axis. Now when I open the French doors, I see a 25 foot tall Cercidiphyllum japonicum. It is a reminder of my dear gardening friend and her constant optimism to plant small trees and watch them grow in your garden.

Joanna's garden is profiled in three books: The Authentic Gardener by Claire E. Saweyers, The Unsung Season by Sydney Eddison and Star Ockenga's Earth on her Hands.


  1. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the post, I enjoyed reading it. I will be sure to check out the foundation.

  2. Thanks for checking out this post. The Barnes Foundation will not disappoint.

  3. I checked out the Barns Foundation. Very impressive. I particularly like their collections section.

  4. SD LASIK,
    Glad you liked the Barnes Foundation. There is a book, Great French Paintings from The Barnes Foundation, that you might like. Are you a gardener in San Diego? I'm not sure I would know any plants that would work in your climate.

  5. I've always admired the The Barnes Foundation and I'm delighted to find out that they are offering online education courses on horticulture. Cheers to you for paying tribute to Joanna.

  6. Thanks for your comment. Joanna was a wonderful person and gardener.

  7. I'm certain that Joanna will be missed. The Barnes Foundation does a god job of featuring real people as a way of giving them a tribute. I would have loved to have met her.

  8. Paxton,
    Thanks for your comment. I am very fortunate to have met her and visited her at Longview Farm. She had extraordinary influence on me during the early part of my gardening life. You would have loved her.

  9. Amazing how that someone special can impart great knowledge and even passion upon one who is willing to learn more. Great pictures of your garden in the side bar.

  10. MOA,
    Joanna was a remarkable person and teacher. She was very generous, encouraging and taught be example. I remember the first time I visited her garden and she was in her late 70's. I had to interrupt her mowing the grass. I thought this is the kind of gardener I want to be in 40 years. I am fortunate to be gardening on the same plot for the last 21 years and hope to be here another 30. Thanks for commenting.

  11. PLPO,
    Thanks for commenting. Joanna was wonderful.

  12. Came across this post. Joanna was my mother's first cousin and our families were close. It wasn't until I was an adult that I discovered how famous she and her garden were. Joanna was a very important life mentor to me setting an example of warmth, openness, humor and insight. Thanks for the photo which I had never seen.
    Cate Fitt
    Richmond, Virginia

  13. Hello Cate,
    So nice for you to find this post and comment. I'm not surprised to hear how Joanna influenced you. She was very unassuming--it must have been wonderful to have known her garden as a child! Thanks very much for commenting.

  14. Hello Michael,
    I came across your post about Joanna while trying to find an article I had read in 2011 about her amazing needlepoint projects. Your photo made me catch my breath, as it transported me back in time as a new resident to West Chester, PA. My husband, Eric, and I, along with our 5 then-young sons had moved to the area due to a career upgrade for Eric. I don't recall the details exactly, but think I must have driven past Joanna's on my pre-school route to Malvern. A casual gardener, her place caught my eye, and one day I noticed she was outside, so on a lark, I got my two little ones out of the van and introduced myself to her. As you well know, I found her immediately spellbinding, and those hands told so much of the story! She took us on a tour of the garden, with it's amusing and wonderful history, and then took us inside the house through a little potting room, as I recall, and showed me the incredible needlepoint she did when she couldn't be in the garden!! I wanted her to adopt my whole family!

    She was so lovely, kind, funny and brilliant. She encouraged me to keep at the gardening bit by bit while raising my family and welcomed me to drop back anytime. Of course, I had no idea who she was, and I never made it back, busy as I was with my little brood, volunteering, etc. I did, however, drop her an index card with 3 descriptions of species, asking for an ID, thanking her and telling her what a joy she was. She mailed it back: Thymus cv. 'Doretta Klaber,' Campanula poscharskyana, Lespedisia cv. 'Gibraltar.' She wrote on the back, "I too enjoyed our visit on the porch that afternoon, and am more than happy to name the plants. I'll hope to see you again some time. I'm much better and it looks as if I can have my drop in garden visitors, just no big groups. Happy Gardening Joanna" What a love!

    I have not been able to find the article about her needlepoint history that I had accidentally come across. I believe I had gotten several magazines in the gardening genre out of the library during an extended stay in Shaker Heights, OH. Were you aware that she sketched and made the designs for her needlepoint based on her garden, matching the floss to the actual colors of her own flowers? Her gardens live on in these beautiful tapestries. I recently came across the index card, tucked away in A Book of Wildflowers, by Dr. William Niering. Though I have not had success with the article, I did come across your wonderful blog, and the lovely entry about Joanna; you were blessed with her friendship, and I was blessed with a chance encounter. Thank you for capturing her spirit so well in that piece. Enjoy the arrival of Spring in your beautiful garden!

    Kind regards,

    Eileen Cottington
    New Canaan, CT

    1. Hi Eileen,
      Thanks for your lovely email responding to my blog post about Joanna Reed. We had very similar experiences with Joanna. I think it was how she was with everyone. I was fortunate enough to visit her many times over the years. I brought my mother and two young sons for a visit and we all had cookies and tea in the big living room with all the tapestries. Coincidentally, Joanna was 10 years older than my mother and 10 years younger than my grandmother and they all went to the same Catholic school in the Main Line. Joanna was great with my children when they visited and I have always thought this is the kind of person I would like to when I get older. She had serious arthritis and osteoporosis and she never complained just got on with it.



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