BY MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
SAUNDERSTOWN – Graham Gardner confesses that before he received an invitation to present an original design at the prestigious Newport Flower Show, he’d been flying under the radar.
A one-man operation, he typically has a dozen clients with ongoing design projects he’s preparing and fine-tuning.
“I had no real name before then,” he says. “When the flower show called and I realized they were going to do PR, I had to choose something.”
The NativePlantsmith became his business name and just in the nick of time because Graham walked away with a top national prize: the Garden Club of America’s Award of Distinction in Education.
It was the only award given in the display garden section of the show; Graham’s installation was immediately at the front door of Rosecliff, the Bellevue Avenue mansion which was the scene June 24-26 of the always-popular show.
Comments from the judges reflected Graham’s ongoing effort to educate the public about the aesthetic and environmental advantages of using plant materials native to Rhode Island.
Officially it was deemed to have “exceptional educational merit which increases the knowledge and appreciation of plants.” Other remarks included, “whimsical and thought-provoking [with] multiple sensory stimuli” including use of water and taped music.
He also received an award of appreciation and was third overall among contestants.
“I was overwhelmed with the response,” recalls Graham, who tends to be a bit shy. “I found myself ducking away.”
He’s delighted that, “the message about getting native plants into our landscape was received. The goal was education.” He also made a leap of faith with his design, noting that he “knew it was too edgy to win top prize in the traditional flower show.
Graham, a boyish 31, lives with his parents in a delightful Victorian house with a wrap-around porch on Rose Hill Road – a home surrounded by lush gardens created and maintained by Graham.
“I started as a child helping my grandparents with their B&B [the Gardner House] in Wakefield,” he says of his interest in plants. I also had early-summer jobs including farmers’ markets and greenhouses where I watered and weeded.”
A graduate of Rocky Hill School, he studied fine arts and art history at Vassar before moving out West for a time. He returned and enrolled in graphic design at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, in Boston. He wound up at the University of Rhode Island majoring in landscape architecture.
“It was a natural fit,” he says. “URI has a great program.”
Throughout his formal studies, Graham took many plant science courses and worked on his parents’ gardens for years. “Invasives crept in,” he says with dismay. “It was my ignorance.”
He began attending meetings and lectures sponsored by the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society whose president was one of his clients. “I joined and began doing research.”
A book called Bringing Nature Home sealed his fate. “I learned that native plants are better for the environment; they reinforce the ecosystem.”
At URI, he built a client base, continued learning and also taught pro bono. Graham became involved with restoring the botanical garden at the Aldrich House, home to the Rhode Island Historical Society, in Providence.
While there, he saw a collection of watercolors created in the 1840s-1860s by E.L. Peckham. “I said to myself ‘I must display these.’”
Then the Newport Flower Show invitation came along. The theme was blue-and-white as designers strove to replicate the grand gardens of Rosecliff’s heyday.
“My concept was to use garden plants,” he notes. “I had things in flower. Everything had to be strong enough to hold its own against the dominance of the mansion.”
In the end, it was a collaborative effort. Graham called artisans whose work he admired and asked if they’d like to be part of a team. Then he bought the rights – for three days – to have the Peckham paintings digitized and framed. They were printed on outdoor canvas in California, framed by an antiques conservator and displayed against a three-sided green wall made of fiber.
“I had a wonderful partner in Tysh McGrail, who owns Woodscapes in North Scituate. We had worked together on the Aldrich House project.”
Graham’s team members included a water garden specialist, sculptor, stonemason, a mosaic artisan, a metalworker who fashioned a pair of stunning fiddleheads, and a sound company that provided recorded bird songs.
Working in a 25-by-34-foot space, the creative crew had two days to set up.
“Everything fell into place,” he says. “There was contagious enthusiasm among all the participants and [what we did] was so well received by other people in the industry.
“Prior to the show, people had never heard of me except through word of mouth.”
As is common with extraordinarily talented people, Graham is his own fiercest critic. “It’s difficult for me to be pleased with my own work,” he says. “But this time I was 99 percent pleased.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .