Philip Riske says he’s come full circle. A history major who became a horticulturist; he fell in love with plants while working at a retail nursery near Philadelphia. Two decades later, the Illinois-native finds himself caring for 12 acres of formal gardens, natural woodlands and wetlands surrounding an early 20th century home-turned-museum built in Norfolk by William and Florence Sloane. It’s only been a year, but so far it’s “like a dream,” he says.
What were your thoughts when you were hired at the Hermitage?
People have a certain expectation and they remember things being a certain way. I think my first thought was, don’t come in here and just act like you’re gonna change everything. Just be humble, take care of the gardens and learn about the Hermitage and file your ideas for a little while. After you’ve been through two or three of the seasons, then make any changes that you think need to be made.
Have you made any changes yet?
Well, we’ve done a little bit of editing. I’ve opened up some view sheds, such as a big live oak along the trail to the visual-arts school. There were a lot of junk shrubs growing in there that nobody had planted, so we cleared all of that out of there. And now you see the live oak and you can see the shoreline.
You spent 14
years at The Morton Arboretum in Illinois. How does
Gardening here is very different because you don’t have a
season. There is seldom a blanket of snow on the ground. I have yet to have even a day where I cannot stick a shovel into the soil here.
What do you love about horticulture?
It’s a career where you have that harmony of body and mind. You must use your head in this field to succeed. You can’t just, like, plow forward without thoughtful consideration of what you do. But you continue to use your whole self – all of your limbs, your hands, your arms, your legs. So, you’re using your mind the way it was meant to be used, in harmony with your physical body.
When is the Hermitage garden most in bloom?
Spring and summer are really the best, but fall is good too because you have a combination of plants that are in bloom, plants with fall color, plants with interesting fruits on them. In some ways, I think fall is the most interesting because you’ve got all these different aspects of the plant that are potentially showing themselves. You get to appreciate the fullness of nature.
Favorite Hermitage garden occupants:
That is a tough one. I really like the flowering ginger in the East Garden and the Mexican sage behind the Sloane mansion. In the world of trees, some of the large, impressive live oaks are my favorites, as well as the giant Himalayan cedar at the front of the East Garden.
Your go-to garden tool:
Bypass pruners. You want those on you all the time. Who knows what you might want to snip and bring in, you know? Who knows what you might need to snip and put into a plastic baggy and have somebody identify? Everybody has lost a pair. If you’ve never lost a pair of bypass pruners, it’s because you do not carry them around with you all the time.
The April heirlooms and edibles plant sale was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus. What’s an example of edible landscaping?
A full-grown blueberry plant has wonderful, beautiful bark, has wonderful fall color. It has beautiful spring flowers. And my goodness, it has these wonderful fruits that you can just eat right off the vine. And suppose the birds get to them first. Well, that isn’t such a tragedy, is it?
You’ve said your approach to horticulture includes applying creativity and compassion. What do you mean?
In this field, a lot of times creativity means the destruction of what came before. You think of landscape architects that come along and just put an X on all these different things that are going to go away because this brand-new vision is going to occur. When I say creativity and compassion, (I mean) compassion toward the land, compassion toward the landscape, and you can apply your creative thoughts without necessarily obliterating the achievements of those who came before you.
– Interview by Victoria Bourne; condensed and edited for space and clarity.