The Man Who Keeps the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Bloom

It takes ten staff members to gingerly install each nasturtium plant in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s magnificent courtyard. “The vines are up to 20 feet long,” explains Stan Kozak, the museum’s chief horticulturist. “So, it’s like a bridal procession, with one person taking the pot and everyone else carrying a section of the plant with arms out. We walk from the truck, up the stairs into the museum, and then slowly hang them over the third-floor balconies.”

Nasturtiums spill from a window ledge in the courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Photo: Sean Dungan/Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

For Bostonians, the annual appearance of the 20 nasturtium plants every April is the first sign that spring is on its way. Propagated from cuttings of the preceding generation or germinated from new seeds starting in June, then coddled through the winter in the museum’s greenhouses in nearby Hingham, the vines with their extravagant vermilion flowers only alight for three short weeks. Their brief, dazzling appearance, like the rest of the beloved museum’s flora, has been Stan Kozak’s work for his entire career.

Initially employed as a high school student on a work-study program, Kozak has been a mainstay at the Gardner for almost 50 years. He planned to leave to attend UMass Amherst to study agriculture, but the museum’s senior gardener at the time convinced him to stay on instead.,“The rest is history,” he says, with a shrug. Five decades on, everything he now knows was learned on the job.

Nasturtium and other plants growing in the Gardner’s greenhouse in Hingham, Massachusetts.

Photo: Sarah Whitling/Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Curators frequently refer to the courtyard as the heart and soul of the museum, probably because Mrs. Gardner’s presence is felt so strongly here. Although she died in 1924, her vision for the museum she created still reigns. Through a clause in her will, everything—the priceless Vermeer, the Rembrandts and Sargents, the medieval tapestries, even the writing desk with its silver cup kept ever filled with lilacs (in commemoration of her late husband Jack, who died in 1898)—must stay exactly as she placed it herself. Of course, that no longer includes the 13 works stolen in an infamous 1990 heist, which at an estimated value of $500 million marks the single largest art theft in history.

Shrewd collectors and patrons deeply influenced by the splendors of Venice, the Gardners commissioned Boston architect Willard Sears to model the museum (which would also serve as Isabella’s residence) after a 15th-century palace, taking special inspiration from the Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal, which they had rented over the years. It opened to the public in 1903 to much fanfare. In 2012, a contemporary wing (designed by Renzo Piano) opened, adding additional exhibition space, a concert hall, and a restaurant.

The original galleries all open onto the courtyard, which incorporates medieval and Renaissance architectural elements and contains examples of classical Roman sculpture. Mrs. Gardner is said to have taken in the scene while perching on the courtyard’s winged second-century throne amid the group of female statues, with her beloved orchids spilling out of the renowned Farnese Sarcophagus off to one side—an image, no doubt, that underscores the importance of the gardener position at the Gardner.

A view of the Gardner’s courtyard showing the Farnese Sarcophagus in the foreground. At left is the second-century AD Roman throne where Mrs. Gardner liked to sit.

Photo: Clements Howcroft/Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

“Our main objective is to keep the courtyard looking as it should,” Kozak says simply. But things are not as simple as they appear to the untrained eye. Conditions that preserve art tend to kill plants. The glass ceiling is UV-coated, blocking out rays that plants need to thrive and offering some plants no direct sunlight at all through the dark winter season.

The temperatures and humidity levels mandated by conservators to preserve furniture and priceless artifacts also reduce flowers’ longevity. The courtyard conditions only support flowers and plants for a limited time before they need to be discreetly moved in and out of the greenhouse in pots. Only the baby’s tears ground cover and tree ferns stay in place.

A chrysanthemum in the courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Photo: Clements Howcroft/Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

On call 24/7, Kozak acts as a kind of private physician to the Gardner’s living collection of approximately 10,000 plants. So what exactly constitutes a plant emergency? One Christmas Day, the greenhouse boilers went out at 2 A.M. Resuscitation of the system had to happen stat. Anything longer than a half hour without heat and all the plants inside the 10,000-square-foot state-of-the-art greenhouse would have been lost. In fact, if it’s cold enough, the most fragile flowers can freeze in just the few seconds it takes to trudge between greenhouse and truck, before even reaching the museum. Luckily, the greenhouse’s caretaker was nearby and able to get it running again quickly. (It’s so critical to the plants’ well-being that both he and Kozak get alerts on their phones whenever there’s boiler trouble.)

In Hingham one humid morning this past July, Kozak donned protective eyewear and used an electric saw to carve an overgrown agapanthus in half at its fibrous roots. Two assistants stood by like nurses, waiting to receive the transplants and quickly plunge them into fresh soil. Removing the goggles and wiping his hands on the front of his jeans, Kozak explained, “We hardly ever buy new materials these days.” Most of the plants come from cuttings of older mother plants. To illustrate the point, he gestured to a stout jade tree standing amid her offspring—40 trees in all. According to legend, some of the orchids and other flowers are direct descendants of the very plants displayed in the courtyard during Mrs. Gardner’s day.

For Kozak and his team of six, work is a daily balancing act between forcing living things to grow out of season and accepting the often-unpredictable twists of nature. The three adjustable temperature zones in the greenhouses are his secret weapon: “I use them to speed up a group of plants if I need them to flower sooner, or I can move them to a cooler environment to slow them down if they’re coming along too fast.”

The Gardner’s bellflowers are cultivated for two years until they are ready for display in the museum courtyard.

Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

The growing cycle follows a pattern based upon nine displays that go up around the same time each year. Campanula pyramidalis (chimney bellflowers) in cooling periwinkle are displayed in the hottest months of summer; chrysanthemums in sienna, gold, and antique pink herald fall; and tropical orchids nestled in fishtail palms help visitors combat winter doldrums.

When asked if he has a favorite perennial, Kozak answers with a dry laugh. “Anything that stays alive for two weeks or more in the courtyard. The hydrangeas top that list.” Tulips don’t last at all, and some varieties of chrysanthemums—a flower Mrs. Gardner adored—bloom for only a week. The campanula demands two years of patient tending alone before it’s ready to take the stage.

Kozak cultivates replacement flowers at the greenhouses like understudies, ready to slip into place in the courtyard as the leading actresses wilt. With so much to care for, it’s no surprise he doesn’t have time to keep a single plant in his own home. And he hasn’t taken a vacation in years. An unassuming man in a soil-smudged polo shirt, he says that hearing people ooh and aah over the courtyard displays in the dead of winter year after year is reward enough.

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