Staff Spotlight: Darrah Cole
Darrah is one of our horticulturists and author of What’s in Bloom on the Greenway blog. Her story is full of adventures, her love of plants and people has taken her from coast-to-coast. You can find Darrah on the Greenway daily, working on the containers and in the beds, leading horticulture tours, and working with the volunteers. If you see her out there, don’t hesitate to say hello! When she’s not making our park beautiful, she’s at home in Gloucester, walking her dog, reading, and looking forward to her next creative pursuit.
How did your story with the Greenway begin?
I became aware of the Greenway when I found the position for a seasonal Horticulturist through New England Grows. That April in 2011, the Horticulture department hired four seasonal positions, which was a big addition to the staff. It was such a great class of horticulturists when I started – Gary, Eric, Kelly Allen. Stu had just come on as superintendent and Anthony had moved up to the foreman position. By the end of that season they offered me a full time position and I’ve been here since!
When I was hired, I took on the responsibility of managing a container program on the Greenway to add color and consistency to the overall design of the park. It was so nice to walk into the position managing a creative piece. It’s still what I truly love about my work here-the creative aspects.
Did you do creative work in your past?
So my background is interesting. I originally studied glassblowing and sculpture from Rhode Island School of Design, then finished at San Francisco State where I earned my degree in Interdisciplinary Creative Arts. It was a degree for people looking for collaborative work, work that didn’t fit as nicely into the music department, or theater department, or fine arts department. At that point as somebody wanting to do creative work, I knew rather than doing things independently, I was more inspired by collaboration with other people.
When I made a move to Seattle, I had been working as a chef and was looking for something new, creatively speaking. By a confluence of chance, I ended up farming for six years. My farm was organically certified, and dedicated to growing mixed vegetables that sold at farmer’s markets and through a CSA. There was a great community of farmers and food activists in that area of the Puget Sound during that time, around 1997. I had many teachers that were enthusiastic about getting people farming – it wasn’t competitive, it was about skill sharing. It was also the time when the National Organic Standards were being implemented, so it was a really good time to be a small-scale organic farmer.
Simultaneously, I was working at Heronswood Nursery, a well known and respected rare plant nursery. I worked as one of two gardeners maintaining the display and trial gardens and a small potager, an ornamental vegetable garden. The nursery is no longer in full operation, but runs as a nonprofit of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. Dan Hinkley, the owner and co-creator of Heronswood, is now the Garden Director. Dan is a prolific plant collector, lecturer and writer and contributed often to Martha Stewart Living. Martha made annual visits to the Nursery. After the nursery closed, Dan mentioned to me that Martha was looking for someone to manage her gardens at her summer estate in Seal Harbor, ME. He gave her my name and she offered me the job. I was blessed with the opportunity to learn from that property and all the people living in the Mt. Desert Island community. It was an absolutely beautiful place to live, From there, I took another estate position in Manchester by the Sea, at a historic property called The Chimney’s. This property was designed by the Olmstead firm at the turn of the century. I spent about a year and a half at each estate, learning a whole new set of east coast plants and flowers.
I was ready to try something different when I found the Greenway. As a public park, I was excited by the prospect of working with and among the public. This was also 2011, so the Greenway was very new and there were many opportunities for development. Clearly it was a dynamic situation, one that called for a lot of engagement. That has stayed true and is one of the many reasons I truly enjoy my job.
The horticulture staff works really hard out there. What do you want the public to know about your work?
Everyone that comes to work in the horticulture department is aware of the fact that we manage the park organically. It’s not a secondary fact. All of us had made a commitment to organic land management even before we arrived at the Greenway. It’s a commitment to sustainability, low-impact practices, positive soil building practices – it’s all part of an holistic system. Sometimes people assume that organic means simply that we’re not using chemicals, but there is really a lot of knowledge involved, a lot of filters you use when you’re analyzing your land organically.
The Conservancy has done a great job of making the public aware that we are managing organically and I’m glad we continue that messaging. I know people see what we’re doing out there because they come up to me and tell me! Especially when I’m working on the containers and I’m accessible, not tucked away in the garden beds. People ask about plants, they ask for directions, they have a gardening question of their own. They come up with their phones and show me pictures, asking me to identify plants they found in the next bed over. This past year we’ve gotten a lot of comments from regulars, people saying, “I’ve walked this path everyday for the past four years and it looks amazing, really filling in.” It’s a rare day that I’m out working where I don’t have an interaction with someone passing by, recognizing all the growth and improvements.
What inspires you most about the Greenway?
I’ve found so many projects inspiring and satisfying. I’ve been able to do quite a bit of our internal design work. The second year, after Occupy Boston came to Dewey Square, I was able to design what is now the Demonstration and Rain Garden in that part of the park. Because my background was not as a landscape architect, I approached it on a more intimate, plant-based level, differently than how I think an architect would. It’s such a popular area of the park and very much appreciated and used by the public.
I’ve also done two Gala installations -the floral arrangements and decor. It’s such a treat! It’s a very creative, high-profile project. I used to work as a chef, so I was familiar with the ephemeral nature of these types of projects, but from a sustainability mode, we thought “wouldn’t it be great if we could use all those cut flowers and plants in the gardens?” So the last two years after the Gala, we’ve planted about 75% of that material back in the Greenway.
And now, Hannah and I are working together on the boxwood beds in the North End. We worked with Lynden B. Miller of New York last year, she set the stage and the scope of the design, but now its in our hands. It’s an exciting project because its a larger than other things I’ve done on the Greenway. This is definitely a multi-year project that I’m very much looking forward to working on.
If you have any questions about the plants or flowers in the park, feel free to tweet us @hellogreenway or visit Darrah and the horticulture team out there in the park!