Sunday, December 14, 2008

Green People with Helen Hamilton

Green People is my new column featuring interviews with local people involved with gardening, landscapes, botany - whatever.

My first subject is Helen Hamilton. Helen is an incredibly active participant in the local gardening scene. She is a retired Biology teacher who now spends her spare volunteering and lecturing for several different organizations. She is President of the John Clayton Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society, the Horticultural Chair for the Williamsburg Botanical Garden, and a Master Gardener. Her favorite topics include native grasses, low maintenance gardening, and stopping invasive plants. Recently, I had lunch with Helen at Friends Café near the William and Mary campus.

Phillip Merritt: First of all, what's with the green hair?

Helen Hamilton: It's because you have to be green all year long, not just on April 22nd!. And I like it. I've got to dye it something. White hair won't do and green goes with a lot more clothing. I'm a native plant person so when people ask me that, I say those kinds of things and plus I think it makes people happy.

PM: Where do you get it done?

HH: I order a product from a head shop in New York. The company's called Manic Panic. The color is Electric Lizard Green. It's a punk store, you know, they sell all this gothic stuff.

PM: So do people come up to you a lot and ask you about it?

HH: Oh anywhere I go there are two or three people, ranging in all ages, all sizes. Little kids smile, you know, teenagers will high five me - "We like your hair ma'am!" A middle-aged lady looked at me and she said "You have green hair-and you're not a teenager!" It sends a message you know - you have to be green. And I'm really happy because I remember way back in the 70's when Paul Ehrlich first started Earth Day and then everybody forgot about it after April 21st. But this is the first year I really have a feeling it's caught on. It is now politically correct to be green. It is now a marketable ploy for companies to say "We're going green".

PM: How long have you been interested in native plants?

HH: All right, let me go back, I taught biology for 30 years and even before I retired I started volunteering in the Smokies as a back country ranger educating the campers about leave no trace camping. I went up on the ridge with a backpack and slept up there 4 nights, talked to the campers 5 nights and came back 2 nights, staying in a cabin and that was just piles of fun. And so after I retired from teaching I lived in my car for two years and I started volunteering in national parks across the country. I volunteered in nine parks; Sunset Crater near Flagstaff, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Portsmouth Island, Cabo Rojo in Puerto Rico and then-

PM: You lived in your car for two years?

HH: Well sort of, I rented out my town house and I told the renters when I come back from the Smokies I'm going to Assateague Islands and I've got to change clothes and pick up different things.

PM: what was your volunteer work like?

HH: When I retired from teaching I knew right away I wanted to do something that didn't require anybody asking me to do anything specific - no committees, no meetings, not to be anyplace, just give me grunge work to do. Slave labor, that’s what it was. It was a wonderful time.

PM: What kind of things did you do?

HH: One of my volunteer assignments was at Assateague Island National Seashore. Natural resource specialist Chris Lee called me up and interviewed me and said "Well, we want somebody to do RTE (rare, threatened, and endangered plant) surveys in the fall and most of them are the grasses do you know the grasses?" I sort of mumbled something and changed the subject. I thought, I can learn it when I get there. Fortunately they had a really good herbarium in Assateague so I just looked at the herbarium specimens of the grasses I was supposed to find. They gave me a map of where the botanist had found this specimen 15 years ago, gave me the keys to a truck and said go out and find it. That was just tons of fun so they hired me again to volunteer in 2000.

PM: What was your next assignment?

HH: Well, then they called me up and said "Helen, we've found a way to pay you this year," so what they hired me to do - I put on the uniform, had the badge, I was a seasonal ranger. They wanted somebody to go down in Sinepuxent Bay to pull up eel grass samples and then process them in the lab.

PM: Eel grass is a native plant?

HH: Right. They were looking at whether or not the eel grass populations were increasing or not, or what was causing their decimation. Little Bethany, who was a college sophomore, and I were the team. And Alex drove the boat. It was cold in the water in April! I mean your teeth chattered! I wore a wet suit and that wasn't enough so they gave us a dry suit on top. What you had to do was get off the boat, get in the water, go out to a post where the SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation) beds were and then Alex on the boat would call out a certain compass headings order to randomize the samples. I said, "Alex you know when I'm in the water I've got to take out my hearing aids and my glasses so I can't see and I can't hear!" So Alex said "That’s all right I'll just give you signals" and so he did. It was the coldest, most miserable job I ever done!

PM: Yikes!

HH: then that project finished in 2003 and by then I had passed my 70th birthday and I was thinking, this was a little silly; I have no business trying to walk behind these kids across the salt marsh and across the mosquito ditches. I thought, enough, time to quit so I moved back to Williamsburg in 2003.

PM: So you lived in Williamsburg before?

HH: I've lived here all my adult life. I taught for 30 years at Lafayette. I lived in Gloucester for a while; I taught there as well. My career was here. My kids grew up here. I taught in the same school as my kids growing up and my daughter went to William and Mary, graduated from here and she's still here with two kids.

PM: How did you get involved with the native plant society?

HH: For the past couple of years our local chapter had not had leadership. The treasurer had kept it going and had gone to the meetings. So I got really interested when I read the bulletin from the state organization and noticed they needed a secretary and I thought, well that would be a good way to get involved and see what other chapters are doing and see why we can't revitalize our little chapter. And the first meeting in Norfolk that I went to, several other people went along, Cynthia Long, Jan Newton, Joan Etchberger, a few other people. On the way back those four or five ladies decided we're going to make this happen.

So shortly after I got back I went in the hospital with back surgery. Cynthia called me up, in the hospital, and said were trying to put together a slate of officers and "Oh, would you be President?" Well you have to understand I was heavily drugged!

PM: (laughs)

HH: I'm serious! I said, "Yeah, sure, that sounds like fun, I'll do that." So that's how it got started.

PM: And you're also involved with the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

HH: Oh yes, heavily involved. We're doing bulb planting. We're starting tomorrow afternoon. I have 1,150 daffodil bulbs in my car.

PM: This is at the ellipse garden (at Freedom Park in James City County).

HH: At the Ellipse Garden. So a couple years ago I realized that no one was monitoring what goes into that little two acre plot. People would plant begonias, or somebody would give them a ginger lily, so I said, "Now wait just a minute," so I designed the horticulture chair position, composed of the horticultural committee which is everybody that does work in the garden anyway. We set up some guidelines and we've now decided that little garden is going to be a good 80 if not 90 percent coastal native plants. The ellipse garden is a showcase to local gardeners as to what you can do with native plants, with no water on site. We still don't have a well drilled.

PM: So do you do any of the planting out there yourself?

HH: I can't, my hip is in bad shape. I had the second hip replaced in July, so no, I just supervise but that's okay, somebody has to tell people which bulbs go where.

PM: Do you have any favorite plants you like to recommend to people?

HH: Well grasses of course.

PM: What kind of grasses?

HH: Oh, switchgrass, muhly, although it's out of its range, river oats. I have them all standing in my yard. I think they make really wonderful displays.

PM: Which plants do you dislike the most?

HH: Ivy. English Ivy. I volunteered at the Nelson House (in Yorktown) pruning Crapemyrtle and chopping out Ivy, and you have to use a hatchet! If you ask me what my least favorite grass is, it's probably lawn because it's an ecological desert. It serves no useful purpose; it's tremendously labor and resource intensive. Flying over—I just came back from the southwest—here are these huge developments; a big patch of green, little house, one tree; big patch of green, little house, one tree. Side by side by side by side. What are we doing to ourselves? I have a vendetta against lawn.

Thanks Helen, for taking the time to talk to me. If you would like to help Helen in her vendetta contact her here.


Les said...

Here is that small world thing again. I met Helen Hamilton last winter at the awful Williamsburg Home and Garden show. Our booth was directly across from the Native Plant People and right next to the European stair tread replacers and the leafless gutter people. I wish now that I had talked with her more, but at the time I was more curious about the hair.

Phillip Merritt said...

Are you talking about the show at the run down sports center off of Longhill Road? That was a depressing venue. Well, now you know where to get the hair color.

Cosmo said...

Very nice interview, Phillip--lots of useful information and great links! You'll have to school me on the grasses-- I know nothing about those (as you know, what "lawn" we have is either thyme or whatever grass was already here or decided to spread). These interviews will be a terrific resource.

BTW, Jeff posted today, mostly about propogating--he doesn't post often, but when he does, it's great stuff.

Jeff said...

Hi Phillip- Thanks, first of all, for visiting my blog. I've really enjoyed "meeting" you through reading some of your posts, and look forward to reading more in depth later on. My partner and I went on one of the Saturday walks with Helen Hamilton and the Native Plant Society last year through the woods of Colonial Wmsbg. and had a great time - she put me to work immediately listing all the species we found. Although I really respect her intentions, and support the use of native plants, my interests are too broad at this point to confine myself solely to their use in my garden.

In viewing the pics of your own garden, I'm envious of your design ability, your restraint (if you check out my site, you'll soom find I have absolutely none...), and your having chosen the career path you're on. Glad to know there are such talented people so close to home!