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

Reprint: The Artful Gardener

by Megan Frank on August 4, 2016

Jean Westcott: A horticulturist, garden designer, and animal-loving T’ai Chi instructor embraces retail

Westcott fell in love with the building at 727 Mount Hope Ave. in Rochester and renovated it to create The Artful Gardener. Photo by Jean Westcott

Jean Westcott, owner of The Artful Gardener in Rochester’s South Wedge neighborhood, has been designing gardens for more than 30 years. She earned a degree in Horticulture and Landscape Design from Temple University (1985) and a degree in Landscape Architecture from Rutgers University (1992). She is a recipient of the ASLA (American Society of Landscape Architects) Honor Award for Excellence. “Every project gives me the opportunity to help someone have the oasis of their dreams, no matter how large or small,” she says.

Jean Westcott, photo by Stephen S. Reardon Photography

How did this horticulturist and garden designer come to transform the once-dilapidated building at 727 Mount Hope Ave into The Artful Gardener, a store featuring home and garden accents by regional artists? How does the store connect to animal rescue, and what is T’ai Chi’s role in bringing Westcott to Rochester?

From Zinnia Seeds to Landscape Architecture
The journey started when Westcott started gardening at the age of five, planting zinnia seeds with her mom and grandmother on Long Island. When she was ten, her family moved to Clinton, New Jersey. “It was still rural then,” she says. “I fished on the Raritan River and wandered through the woods, learning the wildflowers. Every job I had as a youth was outside, working in gardens and on commercial grounds.”

She also had a talent for playing the French horn and her first major at Temple University was music. Two weeks before her junior year, she walked into the music department and was flooded with a feeling of “This is not right.” Westcott called her boss at the time, head of grounds for a retail chain, and asked, “Is there such a thing as someone who designs these things?” He said yes, and she felt the gears click into place. “I always liked arranging things in the garden,” she says. Temple happened to have a horticulture and landscape design department, so she made a fortuitous field adjustment.

After graduation she worked for seven years as a designer for a series of landscape companies and garden centers, but she started to feel limited by not having studied the civil engineering side of things. She says, “I knew plants, but I wanted the landscape architecture training, which includes civil engineering, so that I could go into a project and design everything except the house itself.”

After she earned her LA degree, Westcott was hired by a firm called Manheimer Hertzog Horticultural Services in northern New Jersey. She says, “Other than working for myself,

that was the best job I’ve ever had. They were a company where we designed, installed, and maintained fine gardens for clients who deeply appreciated them. Being able to stay with these gardens for years, and help them become what the vision was for them, was wonderful.”

That’s also where Westcott got connected to Irish stonemason and design/build firm owner Joe Slattery, whom she teamed up with when she started her own firm, Jean Zimmermann Garden Design, in 2002. “Joe installed every job better than I could have imagined or envisioned.”

Slattery says, “Jean turns otherwise mundane spaces into something of great beauty. She is unique among LAs and designers in that she really knows her plant material—especially her use of unusual perennials. Jean can sketch a landscape view in such detail that it looks like a black-and-white photograph, and she does it so fast and with seemingly so little effort that it’s clear she is also an artist at heart and that landscape design must be another way to express that.”

Use of a container as the focal point at the center of a cottage garden, Montgomery County, PA. Photo by Jean Westcott

Use of a container as the focal point at the center of a cottage garden, Montgomery County, PA. Photo by Jean Westcott

Upstate Bound
Westcott moved to Rochester in 2006 to be with her future husband Mark Westcott, because his work as an optical engineer at Corning Advanced Optics in Fairport wasn’t portable, but her work was. When they started dating in 2005, they had known each other for seven years through T’ai Chi. They share the same teacher, Maggie Newman, who is New York City- and Philadelphia- based. Every summer, Newman teaches a T’ai Chi camp at Keuka College administered by Mark. Jean says, “Mark and I would see each other every year for camp and sometimes in NYC at workshops, and at some point it was like, ‘huh’.”

When she first moved to Rochester, Westcott commuted back to New Jersey every five weeks to meet with clients, and she still does some design work in the region, with installations handled by Slattery. Over time, she has built a clientele in greater Rochester. Joan Gaylord of Spencerport has been working with Westcott since 2009, when Gaylord and her husband purchased a home that came with extensive gardens.

Gaylord says, “Jean carefully considered my taste both outdoors and indoors. She came up with a design that incorporated my favorite plants and then worked with me all along the way as I took out the old and put in the new. Those design blueprints are very precise and are striking works of art themselves. I have learned an enormous amount from Jean.”

Gaylord is also a regular at The Artful Gardener, which she describes as being laid out like a series of garden rooms that you are pulled through as if on a garden path, with unexpected hidden areas and discoveries around each corner. She says, “There’s always something new or a new artist or new technique that catches my eye. Also I go there because it’s a peaceful place to be. In the back Jean’s got a sculpture garden that I love to walk through. She’s created a wonderful oasis in the city.”

Westcott says The Artful Gardener chapter of her life was unexpected. She drove by the little building almost every day for three years. “I could see how sweet the building was and thought, ‘I really wish someone would do something with that.’ And then a giant ‘For Sale’ sign appeared in the window. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t have the slightest idea what I’d do with it, but I called my realtor, who said it was under agreement. I thought well ok, it wasn’t meant to be … and went on vacation for a week. When I came back, there was a message in my inbox saying the agreement fell through. I just knew that fixing up this ‘old lady’ was what I was supposed to do next.”

It was Slattery who put the idea of a “shop where you sell cool stuff for the garden” into Westcott’s head. For months she worked with businessman and volunteer Norm Karsten of the Geneseo Small Business Development Center on a business plan. “He’s been such a great advisor to me and many other businesses in the South Wedge Neighborhood,” she says. In creating and operating The Artful Gardener, any skill Westcott has picked up over the years, no matter how insignificant she thought it was at the time, comes into play.

Westcott is pleased that The Artful Gardener is located in Rochester’s Ellwanger and Barry  neighborhood, which is of horticultural significance locally and nationally. “I wouldn’t have decided to have a store anyplace else,” she says. “It’s magical here.” The Westcotts live just two blocks away from the store and walk the area all the time. When Jean first walked through Highland Park, she couldn’t believe the diversity and maturity of the plants she was seeing. She says, “When you know plants, and you walk through an arboretum like that, and it’s that extensive—it makes quite an impression.”

Colonial-style entry garden with a traditional four-square layout in Bucks County, PA. Photo by Jean Westcott

 

Garden visitor in Rochester, NY. Photo by Jean Westcott

Garden visitor in Rochester, NY. Photo by Jean Westcott

T’ai Chi and Animal Rescue
Mark and Jean Westcott’s T’ai Chi teacher Maggie Newman is 91 and still teaching in New York City, but in 1982 she decided to turn her Rochester school over to Mark, who named it Great Lake T’ai Chi Ch’uan. There, Jean teaches three classes on Monday evenings, in beginner and ongoing advanced push hands T’ai Chi and sword fencing. Mark teaches beginner and intermediate classes on Wednesday evenings. Great Lake T’ai Chi Ch’uan is located in the Genesee Center for the Arts on Monroe Ave and shares space with Molly’s Yoga Corner.

Mark and Jean were married by Newman, who is one of just six original students of Professor Cheng Man Ch’ing who brought T’ai Chi to the U.S. in the 1950s. Jean says that it is his form that they study, and since Maggie is their primary teacher, it’s as close as they can get to learning from Professor Ch’ing, which is an honor.

The Artful Gardener is a venue that supports another of Westcott’s passions. “I really love animals,” she says. “I have three cats and a dog named Lily. I wanted to do something to benefit rescue organizations and those volunteers who give countless hours to them.” For two years in February she’s held a Cabin Fever Garden Party. The store is filled with flowers and treats for both dogs and people, there is a pet photo contest, free chair massages and a raffle with items donated by local businesses. Another event in September 2014 was a celebration of animals and the arts; a big tent outside provided space for the rescues to show animals. At all three events, hundreds of people cycled through the shop, and 15% of the days’ sales went to rescues.

Joye Turock is a cofounder of Joyful Rescues (joyfulrescues.com), one of the groups that benefitted from the events. Joyful Rescues shows cats and dogs up for adoption almost every weekend in the greater Olean, Rochester, and Buffalo areas. Turock says, “We were absolutely amazed at the amount of money these events raised. We went into the first one thinking it would be this little fun event, but we were all blown away by how much financial help came from it.” Westcott plans to host another Cabin Fever Garden Party in February 2016.

 

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

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