Before he became an esteemed horticulturist and landscape architect, with featured work in the New York Times and coast-to-coast clients like Stephen Colbert, Richard Hartlage blossomed as a teen gardener in his native Crestwood.
Born in Shively, Hartlage and his family moved to Crestwood in the early 1970s, making their home just two miles down the road from Yew Dell Botanical Gardens. His great, great grandfather, Casper Henry Hartlage, came to the United States from Germany in 1836.
At that time, Yew Dell remained the nursery and family farm of the late Theodore Klein, where Hartlage would sometimes take plant cuttings home with him from the nursery.
Years later, Hartlage and his firm, Land Morphology, are collaborating with Yew Dell on a $5 million campaign to transform the grounds, its entrance in particular.
Hartlage first visited Yew Dell as a teenager. In college, he came back to trade cuttings with Klein’s granddaughter and Clarence ‘Buddy’ Hubbuch, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest’s first horticulturist.
“Buddy was a Holly expert,” Hartlage said during a recent interview at Yew Dell. “I [eventually] managed two arboretums in New Jersey, so we would share cuttings during the winter and he was incredibly generous. I would root things and send them back here to him.”
Hartlage also met Klein on several occasions before he passed. He, too, was “generous.”
“We walked around and talked about plants,” Hartlage recalled visiting with Klein. “He had a very famous Silver Cloud Redbud, which is still out in the arboretum.”
Formative exposure to Yew Dell, along with general proclivity for gardening led Hartlage to attend college at North Carolina State. While there he studied turf management, fruits and vegetables, nursery management, greenhouse production, along with landscape design and landscape architecture.
“So I was trained in horticulture and landscape architecture,” Hartlage said. “It’s rare to have someone trained in horticulture, maintenance and design.”
While in North Carolina, Hartlage managed a private garden for two years that at the time was the largest collection of historic rose varieties in the South.
From there Hartlage moved to New Jersey, where he was named the Superintendent of Horticulture for the Morris County Park System.
“I really was the curator of two arboretums in the county [in New Jersey],” he said. “That involved bringing in plants, figuring out what will grow, writing about them and evaluating them. Neither was well funded, but when you have 200 [combined acres to work with], there’s a lot of opportunity.”
Seeking a temporary sea change, Hartlage then traveled to Seattle to manage the small, five-acre Elisabeth Miller Botanical Garden.
“I never really intended to stay in Seattle, but it was a welcome change with no humidity and no mosquitos,” he said. “But I eventually got bored with having [just] the five acres.”
Opportunity eventually unfolded with Land Morphology, which started as a fledgling architecture practice known for industrial and commercial work.
“Commercial work dried up around 2008-2009,” Hartlage said. “That’s when the practice really started to explode and became more known for really high-end design. That’s when my training in horticulture and landscape architecture really came together. Once people started to know us for our aesthetic and the quality of our projects, we ended up with huge numbers of clients in the New York metropolitan area.”
Hartlage is now applying those decades of diversified practice to Yew Dell’s Castle Gardens Capital Campaign.
Broadly, the campaign aims to improve circulation and accessibility starting at the entrance of the grounds and design new gardens around the iconic castle.
Yew Dell officials say the grounds will be a “botanical masterpiece” once Hartlage works his magic.
“[Yew Dell] wants a series of spaces that display horticulture that visitors will enjoy [exploring],” he said. “They have to be delighted by form, texture, seasonality, fragrance. Providing shade is also a very high priority.”
Between weddings, plant sales, rental opportunities and other diverse programming, Hartlage said the Yew Dell space must function in a variety of ways.
“There are so many things a public garden has to do,” he said. “Gardens are also cultural institutions. They talk about history, they talk about ecology, climate. They also talk about social responsibility. I say we don’t make places, we make cauldrons for memories.”
The castle campaign also tackles foundational issues with the existing terrace structure, which will be rebuilt into a new promontory with ADA access. Those stairs will also slope down into collections of rare plants spanning tulips, daffodils, rare grasses and more.
Artistry is important for the firm, Hartlage said, but not at the expense of practicality.
“Art asks questions [while] design should answer questions,” he said. “I’m really interested in high level craft and using appropriate materials because of my background in horticulture and public garden management. But I also try to be really smart about it—like not planting trees and shrubs that will overgrow and making sure not to introduce plants that are disease-prone.”
Other new design features include a series of arbors, or pergolas, for shade in the summer, a sustainable storm water feature with a surrounding garden, a water feature with collected millstones from the area and more.
Hartlage anticipates the project to begin either in September or early spring of next year. He expects construction to be completed in roughly a year.
“The amount of square footage devoted to gardens will increase by 500% from this project,” he said. “But you also will see the spaces become more defined and specified.”
Donations can be made to the $5 million castle campaign online at yewdellgardens.org/castle-garden-capital-campaign.