Welcome to a new series on Mr Plant Geek, called ‘Plant Geeking Out With…‘. In this series, I ‘geek out’ with fellow gardening experts about our wonderful botanical world, and our exciting roles within it. In this feature, I talk to Ryan McCallister, the head gardener at US TV icon Martha Stewart‘s 150 acre estate. Here, he tells me about his exciting work in her gardens. We also discuss his lecturing for NYBG, favourite plants, and how much time he actually gets to spend with Martha!
How long have you been working with Martha Stewart now?
I’ve been working for her just over seven years; this is the start of our eighth gardening season together.
What work were you doing before arriving in Bedford? I bet you found it colder than Cali for a start!
I moved from California (suburbs of Los Angeles, where I’m from) at the end of 2009, and started with Martha at the beginning of 2011. It was a huge weather difference for me – growing up in the bubble of Southern California’s generally perfect weather doesn’t prepare you for snow, sub-zero temperatures, and East Coast winters (as well as East Coast humidity)! My one year in New York, before Martha, I worked throughout Manhattan doing landscape installation and maintenance in city parks, “backyards” and rooftops.
What was your first day at work on Martha’s Farm like?
The first day was a lot of just taking it all in. The property is huge, and the amount of plants, gardens, and landscape to take care of, with great precision and attention to detail, is staggering. Most of that first day was just learning the property and what was where. As well as watering – likely the most important daily job, as it still is.
Which area of the garden are you most proud of?
I’m definitely proud of all of my work, but by far the garden I love (and love showing off) the most is the vegetable garden. It’s the garden that requires the most planning and work, but it’s also the most rewarding. I love not only growing all the crops (we grow/have grown every veggie imaginable) but making that garden look beautiful in the process. We take aerial pictures of it every summer and from that view it looks awesome.
Do you have a favourite plant?
Like every gardener, I have favorite plants of the moment. The one that’s blooming at a certain time, or cooperating with my efforts to grow it. I also have a lot of favourites, like gardenias, jacarandas, and California pepper trees – plants that I miss from home that I’m unable to grow out East. I also tend to have favourites in various categories: flowering shrubs would be roses, vegetables would be tomatoes, bulbs would be Puschkinia, but all of these tend to change throughout the season. Basically I can’t make up my mind and everything is a favourite at some point!
Do you work with a team of gardeners? 150 acres is quite a patch!
It’s a huge property, with lots of different gardens throughout. Though luckily there are also a lot of woodlands, fields, and horse paddocks to lessen the load (although all areas are maintained and groomed, even the woods). I have a fellow gardener to help me with the skilled and detail work. There’s also a grounds crew I utilise for more of the general upkeep and maintenance work.
Do you and Martha have any special recipes for using your ‘grow your own’ crop?
Being that Martha has released over 90 books, and the majority of those being cookbooks, there are plenty of recipes to go around. Regarding the gardens directly, one of her most used and talked about is the daily green juice that she makes from the freshest garden veggies and drinks every single morning.
Are there any tasks that you and Martha work on together?
We work together pretty much daily. Most of the garden projects are either under her direction or a collaboration. Her input, knowledge, and work is in every aspect of the property. We discuss new plantings and design projects, and she joins in the garden work every opportunity she has.
Have there been any moments where you and Martha have disagreed on any development of the garden?
Sometimes we’ll have different ideas about the direction we want to take a certain garden. I always remind myself that they’re her gardens so she gets the final call if we have a differing opinion. We’ve worked together long enough to trust each other’s opinions and ideas, and she’s very much a fan of experimenting with projects, so we’re able to work through things pretty easily.
What challenges have you faced in the garden? Is there anything you’d like to grow that just won’t establish??
Probably the biggest challenge was re-learning how to garden once moving to the East Coast. Plants that I was used to won’t grow here at all. And many of the ornamentals that do grow here require lots of special tips and techniques to keep them alive and thriving. The weather here is also extremely uncooperative. There’s lots of uncertainty every year with how everything is going to grow and survive.
I am loving Martha’s range of products on QVC, and you’ve been making an appearance yourself too! How have you found the experience? Do you ever get tongue-tied?
It’s a lot of work! I enjoy the process, and Martha prides herself on selling solid, quality products which she has thoroughly tested and uses at her home regularly. I’m often nervous to the lead up if I’m going on air and not just prepping, but once you’re on camera you start to forget it’s there, and the time goes by so quickly!
How often are you out giving lectures? I saw that you’ve spoken at NYBG from time to time.
I’ll usually do a few a year, primarily in the fall/winter season when I’m not so busy at the farm. NYBG generally contacts me on teaching a handful of one-off classes, on various garden subjects, every winter. And from time to time I’ll do a garden lecture for various locations.
When people know you work on Martha Stewart’s garden, what do they usually ask you?
The first question is usually along of the lines of “do you ever see her” or “does she ever help in the gardens”. They don’t seem to realise that the farm is her actual house, so I see/talk to her daily. I tell them she is out doing something in the garden every single day, and would be out there all day/every day if her hectic work schedule allowed.
What’s the most exciting element of the garden you’re looking forward to this year?
We installed a new swimming pool last year. Along with that we surrounded the area where it’s located with a new orchard of over 200 mixed fruit trees. Now that they’ve made it through a full year, I’m excited to see how they grow and develop this year. We may even get a few early fruits!
Jasper van den Berg
Great read, Michael – what an estate! Perfect first episode of the ‘Plant Geeking Out with…’ series! 👍
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long time fan of MS, not just for her obvious love of life and growing things- but because she is one of those rare celebrities/ people of interest who are genuinely who they say, act and seem to be. What a blessing to this life she is! As for her gardens, I appreciate the peek she allows us all into her life, the pictures and conversations- but would sincerely appreciate general info on what plant where, why and, the layout of the garden. ie lettuces here near the —–, and tomatoes here near the garlic and basil etc and plants generally located towards North South East or West, you know the things one needs to garden other than inspiration. Thanks for the article and the info on Ryan, lucky guy, he must have learned so much working with Martha.