Yankee Magazine Focuses On Legendary and Local Horticultural Business

Green Giant
Once there was no more famous horticulturist than Allen C. Haskell.
His family continues his legacy.
By Lisa Palmer. Reprinted from Yankee Magazine, October 2006

Small stones crunch beneath David Haskell’s boots as he strolls along a shady path amid Allen C. Haskell Horticulturists in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Son of the late genius plantsman Allen Haskell, David now presides over the seven-acre retail nursery and landscape design business created by his father over the past 50 years. The nursery, which draws plant lovers from all over the world, includes the city’s oldest house, a Colonial structure dating back to 1725.

Cardinals whistle overhead as David walks past a handsomely crafted aviary and onto the stone patio of his father’s private garden and former home at the north end of the nursery. David ticks off a long list of distinctions heaped upon his father over the years, including being named a Great American Gardner by the America Horticultural Society and inducted as a permanent member of the Smithsonian Institution – a rare tribute. Haskell was called variously “the kind of topiary,” “an epic figure in American gardening,” and “an American treasure.”

At 6’6”, David stands with sturdy confidence but without the slightest hint of pretentiousness as he talks about filling his father’s role in the horticulture world. “This life is all I’ve ever known. He taught me my trade,” David says, sweeping one of his large hands in the direction of the impeccable, lush landscape where he worked alongside his father ever since he could walk. “For 40 years, I was exposed to his standards.”

The Haskell’s family’s exacting standards have attracted diverse patrons, from Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis, Martha Stewart, and Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands to local do-it-yourself gardeners. David says this breadth of clientele is the nursery’s greatest strength. “People tell us it’s like a museum. It’s one of the most flattering comments we get,” he says.

Allen C. Haskell Horticulturalists is a salmagundi of beautiful gardens and resembles an English country estate. Twelve greenhouses, including four classic Lord and Burnham glass structures, teem with exquisite plants not found elsewhere. Dispersed among them are some 3,000 orchids; tropical plants; scores of flawless myrtle, ivy, and rosemary topiaries that Haskell’s nursery made famous; 30 types of coleus; and rare camellias, among many others.

On this day, David walks among the several garden buildings that are located throughout the grounds. Each one is distinctive. Espaliered trees rest on some of them; statuary, planters, and pottery fill the others. On the eastern edge of the property, near David’s office, a hardy jasmine shrub releases its fragrant scent as he passes by. Along the shady, meandering paths that link the brick buildings, David points out the nursery’s enormous collection of hostas, including the largest hosta hybrid, ‘David Allen Haskell’, which his father cultivated. On the west end, laid out with geometric precision, dozens of raised beds showcase masses of nursery stock (such as shrubs, trees, and perennials) in a gardenlike setting.

Except for the four years when he studied plant science at the University of New Hampshire, David has worked all his life in the family business. Before his father’s death in December 2004, he handled the landscape-design end offsite during the week and pitched in at the retail nursery on weekends. These days most of his time is spent at the nursery. During peak landscaping season (April through June, plus September and October), he splits his days between the garden center and his clients’ sites. David’s mother, Ellena Haskell, and sister, Felicia Cruz, are among the nursery’s 12 year-round employees. “None of us are in the business to make the most money that we can,” David says. “It’s a lifestyle. It’s what we do – gardening and greenhouses.”

David says his father’s lasting legacy is garden design. He’ll wager that enthusiasts can pick out a Haskell garden from among others. A strong focal point is one quality; masses of under-plantings are another. “My father was uncompromising and unyielding in his tastes,” David says. “He was discriminating. He had strong opinions on a selective use of one plant, but he would also back it up with why he would be in favor of a plant. We’ve all developed that awareness. He was a great mentor.”

David Haskell’s Picks
One of David’s fall favorites is an unusual plant called Heptacodium miconioides (seven-son flower). It is a shrublike tree with green leaves during summer, but it puts on a command performance come fall. First, it produces panicles of star-shaped white blossoms in September and October. Then, its calyxes, which are green when flowering, ripen to a rosy red in October and November. In late fall, the plant drops it’s leaves to reveal showy, shaggy brown bark during winter months.

David says another fall knockout is the daisy Chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield Pink’, which produces silvery-pink flowers. “It stays flowering through November,” he says. “It’s a true perennial and is very hardy. It will come back year after year, unlike a lot of mums that don’t reliably survive the Northeast climate.”

David likes the look of berry-producing plants, too. In autumn, he favors the bright red berries of the Ilex verticillata (winterberry holly). Also consider Callicarpa ‘Profusion’ (beautyberry), a fast growing shrub. “Its purple fruit is quite stunning,” he says, adding that the berry clusters remain on the plant long after the leaves fall.

Allen C. Haskell Horticulturists, Inc., 787 Shawmut Avenue, New Bedford, MA 508-993-9047. www.haskellnursery.com