Elsa Bakalar’s Garden

Horticulture Magazine January 1987

In 1985 (could it be that long ago?) Elsa Bakalar,  my Heath neighbor and friend, and I started writing an article about color in the garden for Horticulture magazine.  One summer day in 1986 the brilliant photographer, and gardener, Garry Mottau arrived in Elsa’s garden at dawn. That’s when I learned about the importance and desirability of that early morning light for photography. I even got to hold a piece of shiny Thermax to throw some gentle light on Elsa’s face, or the flowers she was  working with.  That was another photography lesson for me.  The article finally appeared in the January 1987 issue of Horticulture Magazine. Elsa was the cover girl!

At the end of the story you will see a note saying that Elsa and I were writing a book together. I bombed out, but Elsa not only wrote her book, with her beloved husband Mike’s editorial support and advice, she started criss-crossing the US,  in demand as a garden speaker, well known for her wit and humor as well as her knowledge.

Several years ago, after her husband’s death, Elsa sold her house and garden to noted artists  Scott Prior and his wife Nanny Vonnegut. Nanny confessed that she lets Scott handle the garden, which he maintains with the help of Jeff Farrell.  Jeff  worked with Elsa in her garden for a number of years. Among other things he is a now a member of the Trillium Workshops trio; they have arranged tours of this garden for those who want to enjoy a fabulous, riotous country garden that is also sophisticated and inspiring. The next tour is July 18, and the final tour is on Sept. 19.  It is best to sign up early.

Horticulture never forgot Elsa’s beautiful garden. The results of their revisit are in the new issue, with an interview with Scott and Nanny. More photos!  Horticulture has made it possible to download the original story by clicking on


You can see the new story by Jane Roy Brown with photos by Bill Regan by picking up the August/September issue. If you live close enough you can even visit with Jeff Farrell and see the garden ‘in the flesh’.

Elsa passed away this winter. I wish she could have seen her garden’s return to the pages of Horticulture magazine. She would have enjoyed it, and she would love knowing people still have the pleasure of visiting her garden and learning from it.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Flaneur

    Yesterday brought the good news that the Gulf oil well leak seemed to have finally been capped, that Goldman Sachs was paying a hefty fine and the market would move on, that our humid weather might be abating somewhat after some much-needed rain. It was if the world were finally regaining its senses. And blossoming. So it was a pleasure to see the post about a reappearance of Elsa in the pages of Horticulture (and thank you very much for the link to the downloadable PDF file of the entire article) and to see, in the posting which preceded this one, the gorgeous inventory of things blooming in your own garden. After all these months – and it was hard to believe back in mid-winter – those plants have yielded their promises and the reality in July is nearly as hard to believe as the envisioned flowers were in January. Would it be foolish to assume you’ve found the time to enjoy your own garden’s bounty?
    [And the new rose wallpaper adorning this web site is mighty handsome, too.]

  2. Gail

    A lovely posting Pat and I am wishing that I could tour this riotous country garden! I am heading over to read the pdf file~gail

  3. Pat

    Flaneur – I hope the world is coming to its senses, and I am enjoying my garden. I hope you like the lawn minus dandelions wallpaper. We are always tweaking.
    Gail – I can’t wait to see Elsa’s garden. It is supposed to be essentially the same, but we all know that gardens mean change – and that is a good thing.

  4. Denise

    I so remember that ’80s Hort with Elsa! (And the writer noting Elsa’s nice skin, and Elsa saying it was mostly her bottom up toward the sun, since she was always stooped over tending to plants.) Thank you for the link. What a dear friend you had and such an amazing gardener.

  5. Larry

    I will have to got to my Horticulture collection and check out the original article. It’s also good to know that many wonderful gardens do live on! Larry

  6. Pat

    Denise – all these years later I notice that my back and arms get tan, but not my face! I have learned well.
    Larry – A garden is an ephemeral treasure, and a miracle when it survives its original maker.

  7. Tinky

    This is such a happy story. Thanks for letting us know that the garden goes on–and for the link!

  8. Tinky

    P.S. Early morning light, huh? I knew I wasn’t destined to be a great photographer.

  9. I am still a huge fan of Elsa, I will have to dig out her garden video and watch it again, and look for the new issue of Horticulture. Se is greatly missed.

  10. Michael B. Gordon

    I just found your blog and was touched to read your posts about Elsa. I first met her early in my gardening life at a Horticulture symposium around the time her book came out. I have visited Heath several times and am glad to hear that it will open for visitors again. Thanks for the news about revisiting her garden in Horticulture.

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