Gardens have long been part of Winnie Mortenson’s life. She remembers her paternal grandfather’s little windowsill garden in his New York apartment on West 22nd Street. She says, “He grew tomatoes and peppers in his dining room. Dirt was scattered on the floor here and there, and that drove my aunt, his daughter, nuts. But the little garden flourished and he had vegetables to pick and eat.”
Winnie’s own first garden was on a balcony in an apartment in Palo Alto, California. She and her husband, Chris, lived there while he attended Stanford Business School and she taught third grade in a local primary school. Winnie remembers growing flowers and vegetables easily in the mild climate. She favored basic annuals like geraniums, petunias and impatiens. A favorite flower of hers is the wild pansy, also known as johnny-jump-up. For the first time, Winnie grew myrtle topiaries; that became a lifelong practice. She says, “It was such a thrill to have my own garden, to pick vegetables for our little dinners and arrange my flowers.”
After Chris’ graduation from business school, he and Winnie moved to Peapack, New Jersey. Winnie had a nice, comfortable house on 3 glorious acres and a big garden. She loved finding unusual trees, such as the 16-year-old pink maple she planted in her yard. She discovered a member of the mint family, Asian beautyberry (Callicarpa japonica) and planted it all over the yard. Its purple berries were prolific in the fall.
In the early 1970s, Winnie attended flower design classes at the New York Botanical Garden. For the next four years, she and a neighbor traveled from New Jersey to the Bronx in the evenings to learn how to lay out and design a garden. From the beginning, Winnie abhorred the stiff-soldier look of formal gardens, preferring a looser, more natural look. “I like my garden to look like God planted it,” she says, adding, “I always planted a garden full of surprises, as it’s what the Lord does.”