David Haskell: Green Giant in Massachusetts
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 gardens 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 Gardener by the American Horticultural Society and inducted as a permanent member of the Smithsonian Institution — a rare tribute. Haskell was called variously “the king 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 family’s exacting standards have attracted diverse patrons, from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 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 Horticulturists 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 off-site 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, Felecia 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.”
Allen C. Haskell Horticulturists, Inc., 787 Shawmut Ave., New Bedford, MA. 508-993-9047. haskellnursery.com