Gardener Portrait: Ellen Lathi

Ellen at the garden gate with Jenny

Some folks grew up with a family member who tended a garden, a mom or dad or aunt or uncle who spent most of their free time growing any number of plants?vegetables, herbs, perennials, fruit trees, conifers.  No need to add that what they learned through osmosis could fill a book or two. And then there are the folks who never played in the dirt, only to discover in adulthood how seductive making and caring for a garden can be. Ellen Lathi was seduced and this is her story. Ellen spent her youth and early adult years in big cities. She grew up in Philadelphia, and then moved to New York for college and medical school.  Next big city move was Boston, where she did her neurology residency.  You can assume that she had a pretty full schedule.

Family life came next. Ellen bought a house in Needham, a suburb of Boston, and here she raised her two children. About a dozen years ago, her son Jono, who was 11 at the time, wanted a hangout, a cabin in the woods at the back of her property. Not realizing what she was getting into, she was game, and the two of them took on the project of clearing bramble to create pathways to navigate. Truckloads of wood chips were shoveled onto the paths. A few hollies were exposed from the cut back bramble. All of a sudden Ellen realized there was this wonderful woodland escape in her back yard. Now that the potential was uncovered, she began to consider what new plants she could add.  Jono liked the idea of planting Hosta ‘Sum and Substan’ for a “moat like” effect around the cabin.  It did look pretty cool, until they discovered soon enough (like the next day) there were some obstacles in garden making, particularly deer browsing.

The covered bridge to the woods…

And so Ellen’s education as a gardener had begun. She consulted with Kevin Doyle, a garden maker from nearby Dover MA, who helped her in making sense of the original woodland which included some pretty wet areas. She visited many nurseries to observe plants and ask questions (I remember Ellen’s first visit to Avant Gardens) Ellen soon met up with one of the most encouraging and well known gardeners in New England, Gary Koller.  Gary, a horticulture mentor to so many of us, guided Ellen in all aspects of garden design, structure, negative space, working with nature, taking risks and making mistakes. One lesson he offered, have fun and don’t take yourself  or the process too seriously, is one we all need to be reminded of from time to time.

A walk through her garden shows that Ellen learned her lessons well. Her passion/obsession with plantsmanship is evident in the choice specimens she has sought out. Trees and shrubs flaunt foliage in shades of yellow, gold, green and burgundy. A vast array of forms contribute to the garden composition, whether it is the exclamation point effect of a fastigiate beech, the cascading branches of a weeping Japanese maple or the texture and movement of ornamental grasses. Perennials with good foliar display play an important supporting role, as well as late bloomers that add a colorful last hurrah to the garden. Bold potted tropical foliage plants add drama to the summer season, and change the flavor of the garden a little each year. As much as her medical practice is her bread and butter, Ellen’s pursuit and acquisition of  horticultural knowledge could be the basis for a new career. She attends lectures, visits horticultural trade shows and travels to visit gardens and nurseries in faraway places. And like so many great gardeners she shares her knowledge, and has graciously opened her garden up for Garden Conservancy tours and horticulture groups many times over.

All images are courtesy of Ellen Lathi.

Early Spring

A view of one of the borders, late spring

The tuteure adds structure as well as support for the white Clematis.

A beautiful Luna Form Pot acts as sculpture in this bed.

Bold Bananas and Colorful Coleus in summer.

Structural interest from a low retaining wall, which will play a role in winter

Love the changing picture, as autumn takes hold.

You may ask “How does Ellen find the time?” Priorities, I might answer. Yes, she still has a full schedule practicing medicine.  She is a dog lover, and now that her children are adults, she has taken up training service dogs for MS patients. Her life is wonderfully full and yet her garden still seduces her to come outside, to observe, and to play.

The garden still beckons, even in winter.

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