Shelburne Museum's Jessica Gallas Creates Art With Gardens As Her Canvas
In a modest greenhouse tucked back from Route 7, just across from the iconic covered bridge of the Shelburne Museum, Jessica Gallas of Milton coaxes hundreds of seedlings, vegetable starts and flowering plants to grow.
Gallas is the artist behind the 20 annual, perennial and vegetable gardens at the museum. Even though it's mid-May, it's early in the growing season and the plants haven't yet made the trip out from the greenhouse to the soil across the road.
"Right now, there is a lot of moving around of plants. We move the plants out of the greenhouse and leave them outside for a bit to harden off."
Gallas said the planning phase for all the gardens begins just after the last season ends: "My gardeners and I will start to have conversations about what worked and what didn't work and what we would like to try."
When Gallas began, there were just 10 gardens on the museum grounds and they "weren't as meticulous and detailed as they are now."
She was able to double the number of gardens and bring them from traditional plantings of geraniums and marigolds to plants like tropical-looking castor beans and flowering lantana.
Some of the plots are carefully mapped out like a paint-by-number set — with specific colors, plants and blooms carefully placed to please the eye of the visitors — like the quilt pattern or the patriotic red geraniums, white alysum and bluish-purple hostas at The Vermont House.
Other gardens are dedicated kitchen-garden plots full of heirloom plants like the one at Dutton House. Gallas says she makes sure to only grows plants that would be found in a similar garden in the 1820s.
Then still, there is the garden at the Diamond Barn. Each year, the plan for the garden remains unmapped.
"My gardener is are always asking me, 'What are you planting there?' and I never have a plan," Gallas explains. "That's how I draw inspiration: I have that wiggle-room to wing it and it usually looks fantastic."
The several stone and wood buildings that sit on the museum grounds actually protect the plants and create different zones with unique growing conditions. Still, strong summer storms and unwanted fungus can take out large parts of the garden plots.
Once, 10 years ago, Gallas had to really wing it: A faulty furnace in an old greenhouse failed and she lost three months worth of plantings.
"You try to make what you have look good," she says. "I will keep plants over here in the greenhouse until August and every single year, we've been able to use them somehow!"
She credits her love for her job to lots of trial and error. She also swears by the museum's rich compost which they add to the soil.
"Visitors always ask what we use in our gardens!" she said. Gallas says the compost is a mixture of leaves, fallen apples from their many trees and the grass clippings from mowing.
"The grass clippings are the magic touch that gets it all cooking," Gallas adds.
Jessica Gallas is a master gardener who has been overseeing the 20 gardens and grounds at the historic Shelburne Museum for the past 16 years. Gallas grew up in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where she first got her hands in the soil in her family's huge vegetable garden each year. She lives in Milton with her husband and daughter.