It’s hard to determine what I like better: the sights or the scents at Longwood Gardens. If I had to pick, I’d probably say the bling.
Encompassing 1,077 acres of gardens, woodlands, meadows, fountains and a 4-acre conservatory complex, Longwood puts up a half-million lights for the Christmas season. Yes, you read that right … a half-million lights throughout the grounds. Even the most humbuggy of Scrooges would find it hard not to crack a smile at that, not to mention the thousands of poinsettias, exquisitely decorated rooms and outdoor displays, holiday sing-a-longs and an open-air fountain with 750 jets creating a rainbow curtain of water dancing to seasonal music. There are concerts and performances, workshops and tours and fine dining. One of my favorite holiday memories was the year Longwood staged a nighttime skating performance in the middle of a clearing surrounded by tall trees. It was absolutely magical, like stepping into a Currier and Ives painting.
One of the folks responsible for the magic is display designer Jim Sutton. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Sutton oversees themes and ideas for the world-class horticulture displays. In addition, he lectures and conducts floral demonstrations and serves as a judge for the Philadelphia Flower Show.
PGN: Are you a Pennsylvania fella?
JS: I am, born and raised in Chester County, right in this area. I pretty much grew up at Longwood; my mother worked here for 30 years so I’ve been around the garden since I was 10.
PGN: Wow! Give me an early impression of Longwood.
JS: She worked with performing arts quite a bit so I remember being in the conservatory and turning off all the lights and being able to walk through it in complete darkness, navigating my way though 4 acres lit only by the moon.
PGN: Did it feel like your extended backyard?
JS: Yeah, I feel pretty much at home here. We have a great staff and most of us have been here quite a while, which speaks to our commitment to the field and to Longwood. We’re all very close and we all help each other out.
PGN: What was a favorite thing to do there as a kid?
JS: Probably just running around through the gardens and watching them change with each season. We have all the seasons represented here, and the displays and gardens change every year.
PGN: What did your mother do at Longwood and did your dad work there too?
JS: She was a tour guide and a performance manager and he didn’t work there; he was a truck driver.
PGN: Any siblings?
JS: Five. I’m one of five.
PGN: Oh boy! Where do you fall in the lineup?
JS: [Laughs] Well, I’m the baby of the first four, so I therefore consider myself the youngest child. And then there was a 10-year gap before my brother was born, so I consider him to be an only child.
PGN: That’s funny! So you went to Penn State for higher learning?
JS: Yes. When I went there, there were only two schools in the entire state that had a four-year horticultural program and I got into both of them. I decided that, if I didn’t get into main campus Penn State, I’d go to Delaware Valley School of Science and Agriculture. But thankfully I got in and now have a degree in ornamental horticulture with a minor in business.
PGN: What does ornamental horticulture mean?
JS: It basically means all of your landscaped plants and trees, flowers — both annuals and perennials — and things that we grow just for their decorative beauty, as opposed to agronomic crops.
PGN: What was the best part of college life?
JS: I enjoyed being at a larger school. It allowed me to do things like a research project for Paul Ecke who, at the time, was the largest poinsettia grower in the country. The school also sent me to New Mexico to participate in a national competition on judging cut flowers, potted plants and professional design.
PGN: Were you out in college?
JS: No, not really. I didn’t really come out until after I came back from the Peace Corps.
PGN: Oh, how was that? Where did you go? What did you do?
JS: The Peace Corps is a wonderful organization. It’s incredibly well-run. I was fortunate in that I already knew a second language, Spanish, and I also had my degree in agriculture so I got their flagship site [in Honduras]. I was asked to act as host when organizations like the United Nations, UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] and the World Health Organization wanted to check out a Peace Corps site. My farmers were actually teaching other farmers soil conservation, so we were a model site. I had the people from the water shed, which is where I lived, paying my farmers to go to other villages further in the mountains to teach them. We were in a cloud-parched elevation so water management and runoff were very serious issues.
PGN: Living here on the East Coast, it’s hard to understand how much water and/or lack thereof, can affect a community. We take a lot for granted.
JS: Yes, there’s a lot to learn and teach. Honduras is a very poor country and a lot of the farmers were just doing subsistence agriculture, just trying to raise enough corn, beans and rice to feed their families. My farmers were very business-minded so instead of growing the staples, we would grow things like peppers, cabbage and cut flowers — things we could sell in the nearest city, San Pedro Sula. They’d make enough money to buy the necessities and more. A cool thing is that two of my farmers did so well farming and getting paid to teach soil conservation that they were able to pay for their children, two girls, to go to secondary school. It’s a very male-dominated society and most girls don’t get more than a sixth-grade education, but they realized the value of education for their daughters and paid for them to go to school in the city.
PGN: That’s impressive. How old were you, and what did it feel like having such an impact on people’s lives?
JS: Hmmm, I think I was in my early 20s. It was cool. You definitely felt that what you did mattered. It made you believe in what you were doing and the people of Honduras were very warm and embracing. In the two-and-a-half years I spent there, I only came home once. Though my family did come to visit me once, which was nice.
PGN: That was a long stint!
JS: You do a half-year of training and then two years of service. I took another half-year to travel all the other countries in Central America. Because of my degree, I got to travel to other spots in the country and work on other projects. One of the coolest ones we did was on the Nicaragua border where we were trying to combat chagas, which is a disease transmitted by a beetle. It’s actually what Charles Darwin died of. They found that a lot of pregnant women were testing positive for chagas, and we discovered that there was a certain type of chrysanthemum that we could plant around the houses that kept the beetles from crawling up the walls and getting into the house and biting them. It was my job to help them build seedbeds to grow these particular chrysanthemums.
PGN: That’s great. So, coming back to the states, how long have you been at Longwood?
JS: This is my 18th year. I worked here for 10 years — responsible for the main conservatory — took a break for four years and ran my own business and I’ve been back for eight.
PGN: What are some of your responsibilities?
JS: I am the display designer so I’m responsible for aesthetics for all the seasons and everything under glass. I help plan for all the seasons and events: the Orchid Extravaganza, the Mum Festival and, of course, our biggest, Christmas. I work with a very talented team and an invaluable intern who helps me stay focused. We plan everything a year ahead, so right now we’re working on Christmas 2016. We pick the theme now so we have plenty of time to grow plants to the needed size and bloom time.
PGN: For someone who’s never been here, give me the tourist pitch.
JS: Sure, Longwood is one of the greatest gardens of the world, no doubt about that. We have beautiful outdoor landscaping, a large extensive meadow you can walk through, a very large annual display, a vegetable garden, topiary garden, right here in Chester County. And we also have several conservatories with plants from all over the world. We have an extensive collection of water lilies and orchids, ferns, tropical houses, like the Mediterranean house and the Palm house. You could spend a considerable amount of time just exploring the indoor houses, never mind the outdoor spaces. Christmastime is wonderful but it’s great year-round.
PGN: What’s the biggest fear?
JS: Our biggest challenges are crop failures, and if something catastrophic were to happen to the conservatories — such as a heating failure in the wintertime — but we go to great lengths to make sure that doesn’t happen. We do have crop losses, but we have great communication between our production and display teams, so if a crop is going to fail or not be ready on time, we generally know about it ahead of time and can make adjustments. We put plans in place for that.
PGN: So are you the person in charge of decorating all the Christmas trees in the Music Room, etc., and if so, how do you choose the theme each year?
JS: I don’t get to hang a single ornament, but I do get to pick them. My job is more like artistic director sometimes and we want to have a cohesive design. This year, the theme is Fountains and Water and we want the holiday season to overflow. So to bring it to light, we’ve added enhanced fountains and a lot of water features under glass. I set a really tight color palette for our project leaders to work with: blue, silver, white and clear. It’s a very cohesive display from the Visitors Center to the marketing materials to the shop and, of course, throughout all the displays.
PGN: What’s the wackiest idea you’ve come up with?
JS: Ha. I’ve had a few. One was floating nearly 400,000 cranberries on the fern floor in a stream 10 feet wide and 70 feet long. It actually turned out to be very successful and a few years later I did a tapestry of apples with several thousand apples floating on the floor. We learn a tremendous amount with each display we do. One year we chose gingerbread as a theme so I learned how to make isomalt, which is used as glass for gingerbread houses, and we had 10,000 cookies made that year.
PGN: Speaking of learning, you also do lectures around the country. Give me three workshop titles.
JS: “The Hows of Wow,” about how we create our huge elaborate displays. I have a sold-out one coming up called “Floral Fountain,” where people get to create a contemporary floral design built on a piece of marble reclaimed from our Main Fountain Garden Revitalization Project. And my signature presentation is a behind-the-scenes peek at Longwood. I also did an interesting presentation recently in Memphis with our archivist called “Past, Present and Future.”
PGN: Where do you get ideas for displays?
JS: A lot of people send us ideas and we have a creative and talented staff who are always coming up with new ideas, and I look at a lot of magazines and online. I travel a lot and work is very supportive of that; if there’s a show somewhere I think we should see, they’ll send me to gather information and make contacts. I’ve been to Japan to look at mums and to France to see the gardens, to Holland to check out their tulips and daffodils. We’re very international and enjoy collaborating with gardens around the world.
PGN: So what do you do away from Longwood?
JS: Well, I’m an avid gardener. I love to bake and entertain. My husband and I have been together for 15 years and we just got officially married in May on our anniversary. He works for a bank, but he’s got a great creative side too; he’s good at interior decorating. He too has a strong aesthetic and a good eye, and our home is a collaboration of the two of us.
PGN: Congratulations! So how was coming out for you?
JS: Pretty anticlimactic. I have an older brother and sister who are both gay so, by the time it got to me, there was no big hooplah.
PGN: OK, tell me two things you did today.
JS: Well, I spend every day dealing with either a display issue or a crop issue, but today we also did something really fun. We had a celebration for the whole horticultural department. We went out and had a very nice lunch as a thank-you from Longwood to the staff for a great year and an amazing Christmas display.
PGN: Fifteen minutes of fame?
JS: I’ve done a lot of TV interviews and been a co-judge or co-host for a lot of events with local newscasters like Bill Henley, Sue Serio, etc.
PGN: Tell me something about a grandparent.
JS: My grandfather really supported my interest in horticulture. We would build a terrarium each year to keep plants alive over the winter and he bought me my first garden books. He was a fascinating man: ambidextrous, bilingual, a great guy.
PGN: Middle name? And is there a story behind it?
JS: Spencer. No story, just a family name
PGN: In winter, what do you miss most about summer?
JS: In winter, while appreciating the winter landscape, I spend my spare time looking through seed catalogs, anticipating spring and missing fresh-cut flowers from the garden!
PGN: A movie that always makes you cry?
JS: I always cry at the end of “Pay It Forward,” an inspirational movie with a sad ending when, after the boy dies, the town rallies around the grieving mother.
PGN: What kind of music would I find on your favorite playlist?
JS: Ha. I like to refer to it as “Angry Female.” Probably something from P!nk. I lover her, I’ve been to her concerts and I’d have dinner with her in a heartbeat.
PGN: Well, she’s from this area, maybe one of our readers can hook that up. You can give her the grand tour of Longwood. Anybody?
“A Longwood Christmas” runs through Jan. 10. For more information, visit www.longwoodgardens.org.