Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Morgan Barry and the Green Visions Program

by janem on September 6, 2014

Morgan Barry and the Green Visions Program

By Michelle Sutton (michellejudysutton.com)

Photos by Walter Colley (waltercolleyimages.com)

This is a story about young Rochesterians learning critical work skills via a horticultural enterprise called Green Visions. It’s also about Morgan Barry, who coordinates Green Visions, which is a program of Greentopia, which is a project of Friends of the GardenAerial (see sidebar for more about each.)

Morgan Barry is a native Rochesterian raised on Maplewood Avenue. He attended city schools, including alternative high school at the district’s School Without Walls (SWW), which had a community service emphasis; Barry volunteered at Foodlink and as a coach at the neighborhood YMCA.

Even though he attended an excellent school and maintained a great first job at Wegmans, in retrospect Barry says he was following the expected college track, without adequate reflection on what he really wanted to do. He went to SUNY Oswego and got his BA in English. He says, “When I graduated in 2003, I said, ‘Wait, what’s the plan here?’”

Thus began the building of what he affectionately terms his “meandering résumé.” Barry worked in construction for several years, and then made a foray into corporate America in New York City. Unsatisfied there, he started emailing the writers whose online work he enjoyed the most—and talked his way into an internship at Gawker.

Barry says, “I learned the ropes of how a website is run, how social media works, and from that point on I was hustling. I was getting work experience in film and commercial production, sponsored events, and marketing work. I even had a small photography business with a friend at one point. It was a grind, but I would never take back those experiences.”

As Barry approached seven years working in NYC, he felt on the fence about whether to stay. He says, “I was sitting on our back deck in Astoria, Queens, watching rain pouring down. When I went back in the apartment, I found that water had leaked through the roof into my room, drowning most everything I owned at the time. I took this as a very obvious sign that it really was time for me to leave the city.” Barry had also been missing Rochester and ruminating on a random scene from the TV show Parks and Recreation, when Ron Swanson says to Leslie Knope, “You’ll get a lot of job offers in your life, but you only have one hometown.”

When he moved back to Rochester, Barry heard a lot from his family and friends about the new GardenAerial project and the fall Greentopia Festival about to take place for the second year. His mother saw a natural connection, and the GardenAerial cofounders coincidentally lived next door to his brother and his brother’s girlfriend. Barry says, “I always tell the Green Visions youth, ‘The best way to find work, is to work.’” So he volunteered for the full two weeks of the Greentopia Festival in September of 2012 and after that, GardenAerial cofounders Michael Philipson and Lewis Stess told Barry they wanted to hire him.

Barry started out doing anything and everything—copywriting, managing their social media and public events, hauling boxes—and still wears many hats. He’s now Special Projects Director and a member of a small staff (four or five people at any one time) and likes how ideas for the organization are discussed and developed through communal brainstorming and strategy sessions.

When landscape designer Marci Muller, former director of Greentopia, the Rochester Landscape Technicians Program and GreenWorks employment training, pitched the idea for Green Visions, Barry got to be in on the visioning. When Muller left Greentopia to be a designer for Ted Collins Tree and Landscape, Barry took over Green Visions because he saw the program as a true chance to make a positive difference in his city and neighborhood.

Muller still advises him on a regular basis, for which he is deeply grateful, because he had no gardening experience before this position. And of course, she brings her years of workforce development knowledge to share as well. Of Barry, Muller says, “To see how Morgan has grown over the past two years, it shows that he was meant for this type of work. His commitment to the young adults in the program is so strong that it can be overwhelming sometimes. I am so proud to work alongside of him.”

Green Visions is a 22-week-long workforce development program for 17- to 21-year-olds in the JOSANA (Jay-Orchard Street Area Neighborhood Association) neighborhood in northwest Rochester that has taken over three vacant lots for flower production.  Bouquets of cut flowers from the gardens are sold at the Rochester Public Market and throughout the city. The program teaches participants work skills, builds their résumés, and teaches them about small business management and horticulture. There is also a phytoremediation component to the program as envisioned by Muller. (Phytoremediation is using plants to extract or neutralize contaminants in the soil.)

Currently the City of Rochester’s policy prohibits growing and selling food from vacant lots, due to the potential presence of lead and other harmful toxins in the soil, but the Friends of the GardenAerial’s hypothesis is that phytoremediation could lead to a soil fit for food production. The soils on the three lots are being tested by Cornell Cooperative Extension and Paradigm Environmental Services, as are the tissues of some trial tomato and cucumber plants. This fall, Green Visions will have some data points to share with the community about the phytoremediation experiment to date. Barry says the City is very interested in the research findings and has been a very supportive partner to Green Visions.

In the first year, 2013, the program was geared toward young women only, with spaces for eight participants and one large city lot. In the second year, the program took on twice as many participants, co-ed this time, and two more lots in the same neighborhood, where neighbors are pleased to see the program expansion. Many of the second-year youth are friends or relatives of the first year’s graduates. One of the first-year women, Tiani Jennings, returned the following year as Barry’s assistant manager. Her position was formed thanks to the dynamic skills of Maranne McDade Clay, Director of Grants. Barry calls Tiani “a superstar at what she does. I see all the potential in the world in Tiani.”

Jennings is thrilled to be back in this leadership role, as site coordinator for the gardens. “This experience has been great for me,” she says. “Morgan is awesome; he has taught me so much through the trainings he does for us.” Jennings also supervises youth in the City of Rochester’s Summer of Opportunity Program. She hopes to study horticulture in college.

Tiani and the Green Visions participants are encouraged to run much of the small business on their own, with Barry in a coaching capacity. Participants give input into the small business plan for the season, grow the plants and sell the bouquets at the Public Market, handle the customer service, and run the Facebook page and other social media to promote Green Visions. He says, “I try to be as hands-off as possible. My biggest goal for the program is for the participants to gain work experience—some of them for the first time—and build a résumé that they can use to go out in the world and feel confident applying for other jobs in Rochester.”

Barry says there’s a lot of momentum building for Green Visions, and he’s very grateful for the in-kind and monetary donations that have come in. Foundation support is never assured from year to year; community support is needed to ensure the program’s continuation. Please see their website where you can easily donate via PayPal or credit card to Friends of the GardenAerial, which administers Green Visions. Go to the Green Visions Facebook page for photo diaries and videos; you will be inspired!

About the GardenAerial

From the Friends of the GardenAerial (FoGA) (gardenaerial.org) website: FoGA has worked to preserve and steward the High Falls Heritage Area and Genesee River gorge through education, promotion, preservation and development of sustainable communities. It is dedicated to green education, advocacy and sustainable development in downtown Rochester, New York.

The GardenAerial project will completely transform the immediate area of the rim of the Genesee Gorge at High Falls, creating an exciting new public greenspace and trail destination at the very birthplace of Rochester. You can see concept drawings at http://gardenaerial.org/fullscreen/gardenaerial-gallery.

About Greentopia Fall Festival

This year, Greentopia Fall Festival celebrates four years of educating and entertaining the public in all things sustainable. Originally conceived as a two-day street festival, Greentopia has grown into a series of events held throughout the year. The 2014 EcoFest and celebration of art, music, and design will take place September 12 from 6 to 9 pm and September 13 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. around Brown’s Race and the Centers at High Falls. Greentopiafest.com.

Thank you, Partner

Advantage Federal Credit Union

Alstom Signaling Inc.

Batavia Turf


Charles Settlement House

City of Rochester


Cornell Cooperative Extension

Doug Buckley, Blackbird Son Film Production

Habitat for Humanity

Kathleen Holt and Steve Lurie

M&T Bank

Marci Muller


Paradigm Environmental Services

Randy Martel/The Garden Factory

Ted Collins Tree and Landscape

The Captain Planet Foundation

The Charles House Neighbors in Action

The Community Foundation

The Daisy Marquis Jones Foundation

The Housing Council at Pathstone

The Max and Marian Farash Foundation

The Rochester Public Market

The Wilson Foundation

Thomson Reuters

Worm Power

Michelle Sutton (michellejudysutton.com) is a horticulturist, writer, and editor living in New Paltz, NY.


Ear to the Ground: From the Publisher

by janem on September 6, 2014

newJanepiciiGoing through the editorial content of this issue, I realized with some dismay that it skews rather heavily toward the Rochester area. This is coincidence, not intentional. We serve the areas surrounding Buffalo, Syracuse, Ithaca, and Rochester, and want stories from all across the region. We welcome your suggestions—email me at jane@janemilliman.com or Debbie at deb@upstategardenersjournal.com, or call 585-733-8979.

We are always looking for new distribution points, too. Drop us a line!
JaneSig copy


Cathy’s Crafty Corner: Autumn Votives

by janem on September 2, 2014

By Cathy Monrad


These votives bring fall colors and textures indoors and the project is an easy one that kids will love to help create.


Assortment of colorful leaves with stems removed

Waxed paper

Collage and decoupage medium like Mod PodgeÔ

Small bunch of dry twigs (the straighter the better)

Hot glue sticks

Ribbon or twine

Glass votives

Fall scented candles like apple, pumpkin, or spice


Heavy books

Small paintbrush

Utility knife

Hot glue gun


Leaf Votive

1. Flatten the leaves by laying them between pieces of waxed paper with heavy books stacked on top for a couple of days. If the leaves are too dry, they will crumble; make sure they still have flexibility before starting the next step.

2. Use the paintbrush to coat the vein side of a leaf with Mod PodgeÔ.

3. Place leaf on the glass, smooth out any wrinkles with your fingers, then add a coat of Mod PodgeÔto the outside.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3, arranging the leaves around the votive.

5. When you are happy with the look, add one more coat of Mod PodgeÔ to avoid missed edges.

6. Let dry for at least 24 hours before adding and lighting candle. You may also choose to tie a piece of ribbon or twine around your votive.


Stick Votive

1. Trim the twigs to the height of the votive. I found it easiest to score the twigs with a utility knife, then break by hand.

2. Add a line of hot glue on the twig, then place on votive.

3. Repeat step 2, adding twigs around the entire votive. Tip: Vary the twig size and spacing between each to allow candlelight through.

4. Tie a piece of ribbon or twine around the sticks.

5. Add candle, light, and enjoy!


Did you make an autumn inspired votive? Upload an image to Pinterest and tag JaneMilliman and/or CathyMonrad—we’d love to see what our readers are creating!

Cathy Monrad

Cathy Monrad

Cathy Monrad





Garden Maintenance:

Continue to remove weeds to prevent the perennials from having a head start in the spring and the annuals from shedding seeds into the soil. If you don’t have time to weed at least cut off and discard the seed heads.

Watering trees and shrubs is as important as watering your perennials, especially anything planted this season.

Mulch newly planted perennials, trees and shrubs to prevent heaving in the winter. Make sure the mulch is not touching plant and shrub stems or tree trunks. Pile leaves on your macrophylla hydrangeas.

Add compost to your beds now.

Allow annuals such as nicotiana, annual poppies, cleome, and verbena bonariensis to drop seeds in the garden.

Prevent mouse and rabbit damage to thin-barked trees and shrubs by installing 18 inch to 24 inch high hardware cloth. Cut any grass around the base of trees short to discourage nesting by these critters.


Remove and discard all diseased plant material. Do not place in compost pile as some fungal spores can winter over in ground litter and soil and will re-infect plants next season.

Disinfect your pruner after working on diseased plants before moving to a new plant. A quick spray with Lysol or a dip in a 10% Clorox solution works well.

Remove and destroy iris foliage to eliminate the eggs of the iris borer.

Mound soil around your roses when the temperature drops. Bring in fresh soil to avoid disturbing roots.

You can leave the seed heads of astilbe, black-eyed-Susan, coneflower, daisy etc. intact to provide food for the birds as well as giving winter interest.

Don’t cut back grasses and plants such as red osier dogwood. They provide winter interest.

Divide any perennials that have become overgrown, diminished bloom or have formed a “doughnut” shape with a bare spot in the center of the clump. It’s best to transplant early in the fall while there is still enough time for their roots to settle in for the winter.


Begin planting spring bulbs. You will get better results if you plant when there is a month of 40 degree or above soil temperature (mid Sept. – mid Oct. in our area). This allows the bulbs to set strong roots and will give you better blooming.

Fertilize bulbs when you plant them using compost or 5-10-10. Cover the planting area with 2-3 inches of compost.

With some bulbs it’s difficult to tell the top from the bottom. The skin is loose at the top and attached at the bottom. If you can’t tell, plant them sideways.

To deter moles, voles and squirrels, put a layer of pea gravel or small gauge chicken wire between the bulbs and soil surface.

Plant bulbs 2 to 3 times as deep as their height, a little deeper for naturalizing varieties.


Over seed bare spots in the lawn. Filling in bare spots helps prevent weeds in those areas next year.

September is the best time to fertilize your lawn and seed a new one. A top dressing of good compost is an ideal natural fertilizer.

Remember to water the grass seeds regularly to keep the soil moist and choose high quality seed appropriate for your site.

In early September check your lawn for grubs by lifting up about a square foot of sod. If there are more than 10-12 grubs per square foot you may want to treat for grubs. First identify what type of grub you have so you know the proper treatment. Complete your grub control program by the middle of September. Contact your Cooperative Extension for help in identification and treatment options.

Keep mowing the lawn. Make the last cutting one inchone-inch lower than usual to prevent matting and to discourage snow mold.

If the leaves aren’t too thick on your lawn leave them there when you mow, it feeds your lawn naturally.

Vegetables & Herbs:

Any time after the first frost through late October is a good time to plant garlic.

Pot up some parsley, chives, oregano, or mints to use indoors. You can also freeze or dry herbs for winter use. Be sure to wash off the plants.

Pick off the tomato blossoms that won’t have time to develop tomatoes so the nutrients go into the tomatoes already growing on the vine.

Plant cover crops such as peas or clover as you harvest your vegetables. This will reduce the need for weeding and will add nitrogen to the soil.

Another option is to sow a cover crop such as rye or winter wheat in the vegetable garden. Turn it over in the spring.

Dig mature onions on a dry day. Store in well ventilated mesh bags (or even panty hose).

Plant radish, kale, spinach, and lettuce seeds in early September as your last crops.

Pull up your hot pepper plants and hang them until the peppers are dry. (Or thread them on a string to dry.)

If you had any vegetables with fungal problems make sure that area is cleaned of all plant debris and avoid planting the same variety in the same spot next year.

Mulch your asparagus and strawberries.


Dig and store summer blooming bulbs, caladium and elephant’s ears before frost and tuberous begonias, cannas, dahlias after the foliage is blackened by frost.

Bring in tender perennials such as scented geraniums and rosemary and any annuals you want to overwinter BEFORE you have to turn on the furnace. This cuts down on the shock of moving inside.

To start annuals for next season, take cuttings from plants such as scented geraniums, begonias, strobilanthus, and coleus.

Collect seeds from open pollinated plants such as Kiss-me-Over-the Garden Gate, Big Max Pumpkin, and Brandywine tomatoes.

If collecting seeds be sure to keep them dry and chilled 35 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

Join a seed exchange such as Seed Savers. Contribute extra seeds to organizations such as the American Horticulture Society and the Herb Society of America.

Plant trees and shrubs now. They will have time to develop roots before winter sets in.

Fallen leaves are one of the most wasted natural resources the home gardener has. They can be used as a mulch to improve soil texture and to add nutrients. (Get some from your neighbors as well!)

Small leaves like linden or birch trees can be spread on gardens directly. Larger leaves can be shredded or run over with your lawn mower before spreading. Avoid using black walnut or butternut, as they can be toxic to many plants. Excess leaves can be composted for use next spring. They decompose faster if shredded first.

Begin bringing in houseplants that lived outdoors all summer. Wash off with a good spray of soapy water. Check for diseases and insects before bringing inside.

Take pictures of your gardens. Make notes for next year’s gardens now. What worked, what didn’t, what to add, remove, or move.

Begin to get poinsettias ready for December flowering. They need fourteen hours of total uninterrupted darkness and ten hours of bright light. Let your amaryllis bulbs begin a 2 month rest period.

Lay out thick layers of cardboard or newspaper over areas that will become new beds in the spring. These will kill grasses and/or weeds as they break down making spring efforts easier.

Take notes on what worked or didn’t.  (You think you will remember next year but you probably won’t.)

—Carol Ann Harlos & Lyn Chimera, Master Gardeners, Erie County Cornell Cooperative Extension



This issue’s specimen is a toughie. It is a non-native and rare in cultivation here in the States, despite being reliably hardy. A small tree, it only reaches about 20 feet and is generally multi-stemmed. The flowers are fragrant and all above-ground parts are edible.


The first reader to guess correctly will win a 4 foot tall Hamamelis mollis ‘Wisley Supreme’ (witch hazel) from Holmes Hollow Farm on Turk Hill in Victor. Submit answers to jane@janemilliman.com (fastest) or by calling 585-733-8979.


Answer from last issue (July-August 2014): Yellowwood, or Cladrastis kentukea syn. lutea.

Q&A1 Q&A3 Q&A2


The Magic of Garden Follies

by janem on August 26, 2014


England and many parts of Europe are known for their enchanting and beautifully-designed gardens. A quintessential English garden typically has some sort stone ruin or a garden “folly” that adds, as a point of interest, an accent of antiquity and creates a bit of magic to the layout and flow of the garden. As an architectural term, folly is a building constructed primarily for decoration, yet suggests through its appearance another purpose. 18th century English gardens and French garden landscapes often featured Roman temples, which symbolized classical virtues and ideals. Other 18th century garden follies represented ruined abbeys, Chinese temples, or Egyptian pyramids, to represent different continents or historical eras. Some follies, particularly during famine, were built as a form of poor relief, to provide employment for peasants and unemployed artisans.


Typically follies have no other purpose than as ornamentation, to add a sense of majesty and magic. They will often have the appearance of a building constructed for a particular purpose, such as a castle or tower. If they have another purpose, it may be disguised. They are buildings, or parts of buildings, and thereby distinguished from other garden ornaments such as sculpture. Follies are deliberately built as ornaments and are commissioned and built for pleasure.

— Liza Savage-Katz (Lizasavagekatz@gmail.com). Photography by Tracy Grier (Tgrier@juno.com)

Upstate New Yorkers have a rare opportunity to learn the art of building garden follies with dry laid stone with two highly skilled and accomplished artisan craftsmen, John Shaw-Rimmington (founder of Dry Stone Walling Across Canada, or DSWAC) and Norman Haddow (Official dyker of Balmoral Castle, Scotland). The “Walling Weekend” will take place at Sara’s Garden Center in Brockport the weekend of October 11th & 12th. At the workshop, students will build a castle ruin folly. Student space is limited. To register or for more information, contact Kathy at Sara’s Garden Center via email: Kkepler@rochester.rr.com or phone: 585-637-4745.





Name this plant!

mystery1 mystery2

A native ornamental, it grows to 50 feet tall. It sports handsome foliage and bark, and white flowers in panicles, late May to early June. At Lilac Hill there is a pink-flowered variety, which Ted Collins obtained from Coldwater Pond Nursery (and Ted Hildebrand, no fair guessing). This is an underused gem, great as a lawn specimen.

The first reader to guess correctly will win a lilac from Lilac Hill Nursery. Submit answers to jane@janemilliman.com or by calling 585-733-8979.

We already have a winner, but if you want to guess, leave a comment below.

Answer from last issue (May-June 2014): The Pepperidge tree, also known as black gum (Nyssa sylvatica)




By Cathy Monrad

Vertical gardens are a great way save space while adding height variation to a bed. With this project, you can also utilize extra containers you may have on hand.


There are numerous ways to personalize this concept to match your style. Try painting the pots different colors, adding house numbers to the containers, placing a bowl  atop the final pot to act as a birdbath, or swapping out flowers with herbs if your planter is near the kitchen.


5 standard terra cotta pots in the following sizes:
14″, 12″, 10″, 8″, and 6″

A 2-cubic-foot bag of potting soil

One 48” sturdy garden stake (bamboo or plastic coated)

Soil Moist granules (optional)

Annual plants


1.Determine where to place the planter and insert the garden stake at 12-14 inches into the ground for stability.

2.Thread the 14″ pot on the stake and fill with moistened potting soil to just about 3 inches below the rim. Water in to settle the soil.

3.Thread the 12″ pot on the stake, angling it as much or as little as you wish. You may have to pat down the soil, or add more under the pot to achieve the desired angle.

4.Fill the 12″ pot with soil.

5.Repeat steps 3 & 4 with the remaining pots, alternating each pot’s angle until all the pots are threaded and filled with soil.

6.If the garden stake sticks up more than an inch above the final pot, you can trim it off using a saw or tin snips, depending on the type of garden stake you are using.

7.Plant as desired.


Cathy Monrad is the graphic designer for the Upstate Gardeners’ Journal.


Tombs image of the beloved katsura tree (Cercidphyllum japonicum) in Rochesters Highland Park.

Tomb’s image of the beloved katsura tree (Cercidphyllum japonicum) in Rochesters Highland Park.

By Michelle Sutton

Images copyright Michael Tomb

Michael Tomb’s mesmerizing “Skin of the Arboretum” image series began in early 2008, on a tour of Rochester’s Highland Botanical Park Pinetum with horticulturist Kent Milham. Tomb became fascinated by both patterned and abstract expressions of bark on the trees; he now exhibits truly arresting photos and photo collages of them. As with “The Hobbiton of the Bark” (see photo), he frequently employs an element of trompe l’oeil in both the subject matter and the convincing, apparent picture frame. 

Tomb identifies as a digital media artist, rather than a photographer. He has taken an average of 50 pictures a day over the last 15 years. Many of his images employ HDR (high dynamic range) software that takes multiples of an image and eliminates the “noise” from each one to get a wider range of exposure and maximum 3-D effect. 

“Many of my finished images are not one photo—each is as many as 12 or 13 frames on top of or extending each other,” he says. “Virtually every image has been manipulated. I don’t believe in the idea that there’s a clean image that’s somehow sacred. All digital cameras are computers, after all, so a program is involved in any digital photography.” 

He continues, “I’m after the image. I like to use any method available to me—so were many of the most famous film-based photographers. They often used analog tools such as filters on the camera or the enlarger and dodging and burning, even combining multiple images into one. I experimented with all those techniques back in my darkroom days. But the image still begins in my mind’s eye and works its way slowly towards a surface of some sort. There is no happy accident involved here; I know what I want and when the image finally lines up with my internal expectation, it’s finally done.”

Michael Tomb's “Hobbiton of the Bark” employs trompe l'oeil in both the image and the “frame.”

Michael Tomb’s “Hobbiton of the Bark” employs trompe l’oeil in both the image and the “frame.”

The tour where “Skin” was birthed was organized for the Highland Park Neighborhood Association, an organization with whom Tomb and his wife Marcia, residents of the neighborhood, have been very active since 2006, when a fatal stabbing of a young person 300 feet from their door galvanized them. 

Tomb says, “Marcia and I had a conversation. It was like, if we’re going to stay here, we need to get more involved. I’m a lifelong committed pacifist so I wasn’t going to suggest we get armed. The one thing I knew we could do was work toward giving the neighborhood a higher profile in arts and culture. I wanted us to make the neighborhood more special, with the hopes that that would help make it ultimately safer.” 

Using his digital media skills, Tomb had been doing some volunteer work for New Orleans recovery post Katrina and had been heartened by the level of community action he saw there. He decided to invest these skills in earnest in his neighborhood, though he and Marcia still make frequent trips to their beloved New Orleans.  

He says, “One of the first things we researched together was the urban planning concept called ‘Placemaking’. The residents themselves re-design their common public living spaces to make them more inviting and special. The results are places that the community creates and owns together. The idea is both old and new; in fact I discovered an article written in 1882 in one of Rochester’s most beautiful (if forgotten) horticultural journals, Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine, that described what is now known as ‘Placemaking’. And when I republished it on our neighborhood’s online ‘Virtual Scrapbook’, links to it were retweeted by national experts who support the movement. This is now something I’m totally committed to as a way to develop cities.”


Snow on the trunk of a London planetree (Platanus x acerifolia) in Tombs Highland Park neighborhood.

Snow on the trunk of a London planetree (Platanus x acerifolia) in Tombs Highland Park neighborhood.

Tomb’s mother’s family was based mostly in Rochester but at an early age, he experienced a huge cultural upheaval. His Sicilian grandfather, Frank Mully, a mason by training, had moved with his wife and family from Rochester to Bristol in the 1940s to live on a farm and eventually started that rural area’s first Italian restaurant, on Route 64. Tomb grew up on the attached farm, and growing vegetables with his grandfather kicked off a lifelong interest in gardening. After his grandfather Frank had a severe stroke, Tomb’s family literally moved into the restaurant building to help out, and thus commenced many years of Tomb’s immersion in the restaurant trade, of which he has happy memories. 

Tomb’s mother, Gemma, was only one of two college educated members on either side of the family; she was passionate about music and the arts, and about science. “She could tell you the life history of all the great classical composers, and she could play the most rollicking version of ‘Sunny Side of the Street’ on the piano,” he says. 

Gemma passed her love of the arts and sciences on to her children including her son, who in his teenage years developed passions for photography and astronomy. She also took an action that had hugely positive consequences for Tomb and his sister, who needed a more rigorous academic environment. Gemma Tomb approached the Harley School, an esteemed secular private school in Pittsford, with the result being that both children received full scholarships to attend. Tomb started at Harley in 1969 and finished in three years. “I got exposed to this amazing nurturing educational experience I wish so many kids could have,” he says. 

Among the courses he took was filmmaking, and he even had after-hours access to the school’s refrigerator-size computer. Tomb used “unshielded radio noise” from the computer to score one of his animated films. He took to computer programming, eventually developing his own personal video games. In 1972 he started attending Franklin and Marshall College, because they had a strong Astrophysics program. He became the photo-editor of the college paper and continued to school himself in computer programming. In his senior year, he had a bit of an identity crisis and dropped out and returned to Rochester where he’d hoped to work as a photographer, but he spent more of his time evaluating choices in life and the result was a renewed desire to complete his education.

Eventually one of Tomb’s best friends at Franklin and Marshall, Paul Marttila, convinced Michael to go back to college and finish his degree. They are still close. Marttila says, “We connected through a shared sense of humor; I’m proud to call him one of my closest friends for 40 years. Michael is a brilliant guy, a renaissance man. In college, we would go camping with our friends and Michael, already at that phase an advanced astronomer, would spend hours describing constellations and planets in a way that was fascinating to us. In recent years, I’ve seen him give multimedia presentations on astronomy that were amazing.”    

A collage of bark images from Tombs “Skin of the Arboretum” series.

A collage of bark images from Tombs “Skin of the Arboretum” series.

After graduating college, Tomb came back to Rochester and worked for two small computer scientific programming firms while continuing to practice his photography craft. As a requirement for designing one of the world’s first toxicity prediction systems, he expanded his training in computer graphics because of the need to represent and input molecular structures on the computer screen. 

In 1992, he started his own consulting business, helping clients with their statistical, health science, and engineering computational and programming needs. “When I went out on my own, I felt as if I had just jumped from the end of a gangplank and before landing in the water, I had to learn how to swim,” he says. The first year was lean—they ate mass quantities of zucchini and Swiss chard from their garden that summer—but he’s now very much sought after for his skills in solving problems related to new technologies, including writing software. 


Lamberton Conservatory Desert Room Panorama by Michael Tomb.

Lamberton Conservatory Desert Room Panorama by Michael Tomb.

Tomb’s one of those lucky people who is passionate about his work. He is also passionate about the horticultural history of Rochester and has launched a series called The City of Flowers Collection that he exhibited for the Highland Park Neighborhood Association. 

“I found that there was this amazing series of printing companies employing hundreds of immigrant artists that did all this folk-ish, beautiful commercial botanical art, often unsigned. This was a flourishing industry here, one that handled the visual aspects of Rochester’s nursery and seed industries. Rochester invented a new kind of commercial art called ‘plates for the nurseryman’—a nursery rep would come to the lithographer and say, I need prints of these 200 varieties, and a book of lithographs would be put together. These compilations were like the precursors of seed catalogs.”

Tomb has been collecting, mostly from eBay, prints of this botanical art, along with trade cards and early seed catalogs, all printed and designed in Rochester. He scans or photographs the images, digitally restores them, and reproduces them at a bigger scale, which enhances the folk art and even pop art aspects of the images. “This isn’t something I seek to make money from,” he says. “I wanted to pay homage to these largely unknown, incredible folk artists.”  

Tomb is also known for his work photographing Highland Park’s Lamberton Conservatory’s  interior and exterior, including on those nights during the holiday seasons when the building is open one evening a week and festooned with lights. He hopes to publish a collection of these Conservatory photos.

The Skin of the Arboretum continues to be the series that gets the most attention. Friend and former colleague Pat Mann purchased prints of two of Michael’s fine art. She says, “I was so enamored and transfixed to the spot with two of his pieces from the Skin of the Arboretum at his opening that I just had to have them: ‘The Hobbiton of the Bark’ and ‘The Nude of the Bark.’” 

“Nude of the Bark” by Michael Tomb.

“Nude of the Bark” by Michael Tomb.

She says, “‘Hobbiton’ just jumps out at you … Michael captured an artifact of nature in such a way as to evoke a magical essence. And ‘Nude’ reminds me of Jean Arp’s ‘Sculpture Classique’ (1960), capturing the female form in very sleek simple lines, but Michael’s art and technique is even more brilliant in extracting and showcasing it from nature. His addition of color gives the feeling of a cloaked figure, uncovered, revealing the female form. I just love it. I’m glad to see Michael is pursuing his fine art; his energy is boundless, and his passion is contagious!”  

Tomb adds, “It took decades for these images to make it to my eye. I grew up in the rural Bristol Hills and many old trees, abandoned orchards, and pockets of isolated forests were like remote friends that I and my dogs visited alone. And yet it wasn’t until 30 years after I finally left Bristol that I really started seeing the surfaces of trees as beautiful abstractions. Now I can’t stop. To me the Arboretum within Highland Park is not just a collection of special trees and shrubs but these are open air rooms in a living museum of art.” 

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor based in New Paltz, New York (michellejudysutton.com).