Early Saturday morning and all is quiet at Donaroma’s Nursery. A misty rain has settled on the piles of garlands, wreaths and greenery. No one would know that less than 12 hours earlier, more than 1,500 people were here to celebrate the holiday season with wine, cheese, 3-D glasses, glitter and a treasure hunt. Suddenly, infectious laughter spills out of the large glass greenhouse. A smiling Mariko Kawaguchi appears at the door with an introduction: “Sue Weyl, the floral manager and the other half of my brain,” she says.
Inside, the greenhouse has been transformed into a magical winter wonderland. “So many people think that the work in here is just me: Mariko, suspended from a bungee cord, hanging the lights. But it is everyone,” she says, explaining that this spectacle of hundreds of strands of Christmas lights, fabric swags, white poinsettias, orchids, trees and candles took the entire Donaroma’s staff two weeks to create. “And we really could not do this without Sue. She gives cohesion to every department. You should really do the article on her. I’d rather be the under leaf than the flower.”
A spry woman with a swish of brown hair walks into the back room to say good morning. Mariko offers another introduction. “Leslie Deal,” she says. “She’s worked with Sue and I for 15 years and has grown into an amazing designer. This is Leslie’s last day. She’ll give you an interesting perspective on our alternate reality. Now, I have to find my sample wet wreath for the workshop. Has anyone seen Sandra yet?”
Mariko heads outside to find Sandra Torres. Today is the annual wreath making and boxwood tree workshop, and soon the Edgartown nursery will be filled with people again.
Nearly 30 years ago, Mariko walked into Donaroma’s looking for a job and never left. “I was burned out as a professional photographer. I wanted something simple to do, something mindless,” she recalls. “I was a city kid. I couldn’t drive. So I had my little map of Martha’s Vineyard and I drew a circle around my house and began looking for a job within that two-mile radius. I walked in here and told Joy [Anderson] I was looking for a job. She asked if I had any experience and I said no, but that I had been an avid reader and collector of books on houseplants since I was 10. She gave me a funny look, but walked me around the greenhouse — the old one in the front — and asked me questions. For some reason, I was able to recall all these strange and relevant facts. That’s how I started. And here I still am.”
Mariko finds Sandra and the sample wet wreath and heads back into the greenhouse looking for Sue. “Because she knows where everything is and I don’t.” Before she gets to Sue, she sees a customer assessing an orchid. “Shann!” she exclaims. Shann sees Mariko and smiles, “My orchid mentor. What do you think of this one?” Mariko selects another. “I think this is better for you.” Shann tells Mariko she is also here to make a boxwood tree. “Great! I get to hassle you all day. Let’s get you set up.”
Mariko takes Shann to one end of the greenhouse, which between last night and this morning has gone from being a candlelit dreamscape to a classroom with six work tables, long and wide, and giant bags and boxes of greens ready to be woven into wreaths and trees. Mariko explains the essentials of making a boxwood tree. She pulls out a brick of wet floral foam cut to mimic the interior shape of a tree. “The top piece determines the height and the bottom two pieces determine the width. Then you fill in your line,” she instructs. Shann is a quick study. “Remember, every now and then you have to take a moment to step back and see your work,” Mariko reminds her.
Next to arrive are some of her dearest friends. “I lived in Katherine’s house for 10 years,” she says of Katherine Long. “And Judy [Worthington] housed me when I was in a wheelchair for nearly a year. Judy is so devoted that she even pushed me around the state forest to pollinate lady slippers that year.” Another gardening club friend, Pat Adler, arrives. “We’ve been doing this with Mariko for more than 20 years,” Pat says. Mariko’s reply is punctuated by her merry, infectious laugh. “You guys can lead the workshop and I’ll go out for coffee,” she says. The room begins to fill up. Many come in pairs: mothers and daughters, mothers and sons, girlfriends, husbands and wives. Some are new to the craft, while others have done it before.
All are treated to Mariko’s warm greeting. She sets them up with their project, shows them where to procure greens, gets stools to sit on or pots to put under their trees so that they are “ergonomically comfortable.” Then she begins strolling around the room like an art teacher. She shows one woman how to make a clean insertion with her boxwood, helps another triangulate her branches, talks to another about the style of wreath she wants to make. “It all comes down to whether or not you go out of the lines in a coloring book,” she says.
Mariko says she herself colored outside the lines. “Slightly. I found this one drawing that I did as a child where I did this amazing optical blending of a carnation in a coloring book. It was incredible. I think it was one of those bizarre formative moments for me.” Another moment? “Well, I don’t remember much from my time in Japan. My parents died in a plane crash when I very, very young. But I do remember watching my grandmother weed her Japanese garden and me trying to help by pulling all her plants out. That was prescient. That, and me pulling a habit off a French Catholic nun when she tried getting me down for a nap.” She looks around and grabs a few branches of boxwood. She snaps the boxwood into smaller sprigs as she walks over to Shann whose tree is nearly completed. It looks wonderful. But Mariko sees room for improvement. She begins to place one of her small pieces near the top, “Tell me what you think of this.” She adds the branch, wiggles a few pieces around, snaps a few leaves off here and there. Shann and those around her are amazed. The tiny tweaks have significantly improved the tree’s shape and feel. Mariko shrugs. “Now you can decorate. But you’ve been working for two hours. Go get something to eat first.”
She walks over to check in on an older gentleman’s wreath, “How about a bow?” They discuss colors and placement. English bows are on the bottom. American bows are apparently everywhere else. She makes his bow as she talks to another woman about her wreath. The woman is not sure whether or not to add more. “Here’s one of my mantras: an accent is an accent only if it is an accent,” she says, then pausing with softer advice: “But you can also edit when you get home.”
For the next four hours, Mariko circles the room, answering questions, assessing people’s work and making bows. “I am the Yoda of bows,” she declares. She gently educates, offers advice without judgment.
She recalls an early lesson, a “harsh horrible lesson. It was my first Christmas with a roommate. And I had this whole picture of how we’d decorate in my head. She came home with stuff I thought was awful. I made her cry. It was terrible. I realized that those things for her were Christmas. And who was I to criticize? My adopted grandfather [who raised Mariko until she was 10] had an aluminum tree with a disc light that he kept fully decorated in a closet. So when I do a wedding or flowers or this wreath workshop, I see my job as helping people see and realize their vision. Not mine.” Finally her work day nears an end. Mariko sits down on a bench in the greenhouse and watches as the last few customers nose around the shop. Her boyfriend David, who has spent the day marching around the nursery in a Santa suit with a kazoo, comes and sits beside her. Although they have been together for 12 years, they act like newlyweds. A customer asks what time they close. Mariko tells her, “Technically five. But there’s no rush at all. We’re still cleaning up.”
She credits her orchids for teaching her patience. “Well, orchids and Polly Hill. Polly had so much respect for the small spirit. For seeds. Some of the things she planted, she had to wait 50 years for them to bloom,” she says.
And while like the late Polly Hill, Mariko clearly has a green thumb, her other real gift is knowing how to make people flower. All you have to do is look at the faces of the people walking out of the greenhouse. There is a childhood glee about them. They all radiate joy. Just like Mariko.
Mariko Kawaguchi, Rare Orchid
Profession: Horticultural Designer, Donaroma’s Nursery, author, Rare Orchids.
Worked at Donaroma’s: “Since Michael and Janice were married [30 years next June].”
Raised: “Underneath an orchid patch. Really? Virginia and Washington, D.C.”
Partner: David Kish. “Our resident Santa for the last 12 years.”
Lives: In West Tisbury.
Education: First graduating class of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., Maryland Institute College of Art.
Number of bows she’s made in her career: “Hundreds of thousands.”
Favorite flower: “Lady slippers. And the exotic orchids — ones that are so small you need a magnifying glass to see them. And the kind of rare house plants that grow one leaf a year.”
Where she purchased her sequined slippers for the Donaroma’s holiday party: Job Lot.
Christmas wrapping tradition at home: “A pillow case. David knows I do enough bows at work.”