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The Constant Gardener

Dig she must, with a mandate for all seasons.

Maureen corps: Hackett and helpers in Bryant Park, where the fixing never ends.
Click image above for slideshow.

Maureen Hackett sighed, pondering the muddy midsection of Bryant Park. For months it had been undergoing major surgery to repair irrigation and drainage problems. Now it was April, and when would the mess go away? In May. The pipes went in, the gravel went on, the ground was upholstered in bright new lawn, and Midtown’s lushest oasis—designated a Scenic Landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission—bounced back, after the umpteenth upheaval in its history [see sidebar].

As Director of Horticulture for the Bryant Park Corporation, the 34th Street Partnership, and the Chelsea Improvement Company, Hackett has her hands full (above she holds a Rosa Knockout). Here in Bloomburg, the parks are owned by the city, but some are more equal than others—maintained by not-for-profit private management companies such as these three she serves. Her job is a hybrid, managing posies and paperwork with ten green thumbs. In an office full of maps, surveys, and gardening books—with nary a whiff of the potting shed about it—she cultivates her award-winning schemes.

In springtime and snowtime, she beautifies Herald and Greeley Square Parks near Macy’s, and the sidewalk planters on 34th Street. Same in Chelsea, from Eighth to Tenth. But Bryant Park—behind the New York Public Library, from 40th to 42nd—is the jewel in her kingdom. Decorated with hundreds of trees and thousands of flowers—from the Dragon Wing Begonias on Fifth Avenue near the library lions to the lavish arrangements that make even the Public Toilet a must-go destination—this is a zone New Yorkers tend not to take for granted.

“They walk into the park,” says Maureen, who tends to notice these things, “and you can actually see their body language change. They relax, they decompress. They’re lifted, and they’re calm. They sometimes just smile!”

Blonde and blue-eyed and 56, Maureen sometimes smiles as well, even as she lugs flowerpots, unloads trucks, and wields a constant cell phone directing gardeners to their tasks. She suffers neither fool nor fumbler, and, when poked, can be prickly. “They shouldn’t have these umbrellas here. It just ruins the display,” she scoffs, making her Herald rounds. “And what’s with my holding area?” she yelps in Bryant, piqued to find her storage space usurped. But she weeds her frustrations, prunes her nettles. Politically she sticks to the primrose path and far from the bike lane, “pedestrian plaza,” and other controversial points—although her advice is often sought by various city agencies, for free. “I don’t consider myself an extension service, but I’m happy to share,” she says politely.

Born in Bay Ridge, she aced a dual major in horticultural science and soil science at Oregon State University. “I found New York oppressive,” she explains. “I needed to explore. It was the only way I knew to do it.” Thence to St. Croix to do irrigation research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a turn as head gardener of Central Park’s Conservatory Garden, a year in England interning for “the guy with the largest wholesale nursery in Europe for perennials,” and a term governing the gardens at Gracie Mansion.

April was the cruelest month. She couldn’t replace Bryant’s daffodils because the endless winter had delayed everything and they weren’t finished...even while tulips and hyacinths waited to be planted. May brought the petunia and salvia, caladium and ipomoea. June brings the rose and hollyhock, latte and laptop, screening and concert, yogi and yodeler, poet and...pest. Insects face “a bad environment” here because the leaves are sprayed with petroleum-based horticultural oils. Rats face weekly exterminators. And pigeons—well. Not only are they a bother, but so are the birdbrains who trample the land to feed them.

All part of the big picture. “My job is to keep the park green,” she says, “which is difficult with construction, events, crowds—not to mention the ice rink in winter, and the holiday shops...and remember Fashion Week? So it’s a balance between these things, which are a vital part of the park’s identity, and maintaining the illusion of a private estate.”

At her own estate, a split-level on .28 acre in Westchester, she’s been balancing for years. As a single mother working full-time, she produced Katherine, a Georgetown student now considering her own dual major in math and psychology. “She used to worry too much about me,” Maureen says, “and now I worry that she’s sort of an over-achiever. But I’m thrilled to have one terrific, kind daughter. A gift, a real gift. My most important project.”

So many plots and plans! She also designs gardens and terraces for private clients, pines to landscape seedy college campuses, and dreams of traveling through the cycle of seasons for a year, here and abroad, visiting the world’s great gardens and nurseries. All of which leaves little time “to reflect, to have the luxury of thinking a little.”

Or to sit. “I rarely do,” she admits, “but yesterday, I sat on one of the little bistro chairs in Bryant Park, near the tulips, and watched people. Now with Twitter and Flickr and blogs, we can see what they’re seeing and read what they’re thinking about the experience. And they’re excited! It’s what makes all the hassle worth it. It’s why people like me do a thing like this.”

Ellen Stern was a writer and editor at New York, GQ, and The Daily News. She is the author of Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City’s Mayoral Residence.