Visitors get an introduction to the new Island institution. Photo by Mark Alan Lovewell.
For years the Polly Hill Arboretum was the secret treasure of a select few — friends and acquaintances of Mrs. Hill, people with a special interest in horticulture or gardening, and Island residents and visitors who stumbled upon the peaceful refuge by chance.
The Polly Hill Arboretum will always be a secret garden. As it changes with the seasons, every encounter holds the magic of a new discovery. It is not, however, a garden whose treasures are locked up. On Saturday, the arboretum celebrated its transition from a private garden to a public institution. In so doing, the arboretum opened up all its hidden treasures to the world. 
“Polly has always been most hospitable to all people who are interested in plants and horticulture who have come onto the property,” said the arboretum’s new executive director, Stephen Spongberg. “But in the past, being a private place, it has not been immediately available to the public.” There were many people who didn’t know of the resource or felt that they needed an invitation to visit, he said.
The sheer numbers of people who came to witness the birth of this new garden indicate the resource’s potential importance for the Island and beyond. Well over 1,000 residents and visitors, many professional horticulturists, a dozen arboretum directors from all over the United States and Peter Webber of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management came to meet the woman who grew more than 1,700 different species from seed.
“It’s wonderful,” said arboretum founder David Smith of the opening. “It’s Polly’s day, Polly’s weekend. We’re just delighted to be a part of it. I think it’s a very special day for the Island.”
The grandeur of this day — which began with morning tours of the 60 West Tisbury acres, then featured a talk by longtime New York Times gardening columnist Allen Lacy and ended with a ceremonial seed planting — was something that Mrs. Hill never envisioned.
“I envisioned day to day doing what I was doing. One does each day what one can do for that day,” said Mrs. Hill, 91, sitting atop her trusty yellow golf cart.
Mr. Lacy made some informal remarks and then read from his new book, The Inviting Garden: Gardening for the Senses, Mind and Spirit. His witty interweaving of personal stories, jokes, advice and encouragement for prospective gardeners filled the sunlit tent with laughter.
“There are two things that people say to me that I rather object to,” said Mr. Lacy. “One is, ‘I want an English garden.’ … Can’t have it. Not unless you live in England, because there’s only one rule of gardening, and it’s very simple. You have to garden where you are, not someplace else.
“When my mother died, I went back to Dallas, Tex., and visited the Dallas Arboretum,” continued Mr. Lacy. “I went there and — somebody had more money than sense, because in April it was planted with 5,000 delphiniums. If you’ve been to Texas, you know it’s not an appropriate climate, not an appropriate soil. I didn’t see one salvia in sight, which are much, much better plants for that particular location than delphiniums. But, somebody with some money had gone to England and seen those delphiniums, came back and, filled with civic pride, wanted to give Dallas delphiniums. I saw them about the fifth of April. I think by about the 10th of April they were totally gone.”
Mr. Lacy could not have chosen a better anecdote to underscore the significance of Mrs. Hill’s accomplishments, for she has successfully experimented with numerous plants that no one would have predicted could grow on Martha’s Vineyard. Visitors who toured the Polly Hill Arboretum grounds witnessed these successes — including camellias and magnolias that have never been grown this far north before. In all, Mrs. Hill has introduced more than 100 species, including her family of 22 hardy azaleas.
“Polly has not only grown things from seed, she has grown things from seed that are suited to a particular place,” said Mr. Lacy. “And she did this without any guide. There was no book she could consult and say, ‘Okay, yes, stewartias will do fine on Martha’s Vineyard, or Magnolia grandiflora, which is not supposed to be hardy much north of Delaware.’ We have it growing in New Jersey, and I must say, that’s a better specimen than we have in New Jersey. It’s happier here.”
The second thing Mr. Lacy finds objectionable is when people say, “I want a no-maintenance garden.” Unless one likes gardens of concrete and plaster, he said, there is no such thing.
At the ceremonial seed planting, 11 stewartia seeds collected in the wild in Seoul, Korea, were placed into a stratification system for planting at a later date. The dozen arboretum directors who then spoke congratulated Mrs. Hill on her achievements and thanked her for her inspiration to the rest of the horticultural world. They offered support for the arboretum as it embarks on its transition from private garden to public institution, reminding the arboretum staff that much work and many challenges lie ahead.
“Coming from an arboretum that will turn 70 next year, the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, I know very well that the work of teaching and reaching people never ends, just like a garden is never finished,” said Claire Sawyers. “That’s what we celebrate on a daily basis in our work, the knowledge that far in the future, someone that none of us here knows, will have the chance to discover the beauty and the magic of this place. . . . But please, don’t think your job is done.”
Many of those who spoke will return to the arboretum as guest lecturers in the arboretum’s summer educational program. World renowned conifer expert Kim Tripp, director of the Botanic Garden at Smith College, will share her expertise with the Vineyard public in a workshop July 15. “What you are doing here is creating a model for this kind of work in the United States,” she said. “Over the next 100 years, public spaces that celebrate and educate people about plants and horticulture are going to be extremely valuable as models, and as places of respite for people and plants. Having the foresight and the vision to see that the Polly Hill Arboretum is, in fact, one of those places is an incredible thing.”
One of the challenges the arboretum faces as it enters the 21st century is that of balancing growth with preserving the arboretum’s pastoral charm. The arboretum, with its lichen-covered stone walls, expansive meadows, romantic arbors and rustic, historic buildings, leaves visitors with a real appreciation for the property when it was a sheep farm some 150 years ago. 
“We have every intention of maintaining the character of this place,” said Mr. Spongberg. “We are not going to undertake major changes or go off in any new directions. This is such a wonderful landscape as it is.
“What this presents to us is a challenge to do things in a manner that will be very sensitive to the tranquil sense of place and the traditions Polly has established.”
The newly constructed visitors center, designed by the Cambridge-based Thompson and Rose architects, and Island landscape artist Michael Van-Valkenburgh’s woodsy, natural parking lot speak to this commitment. The visitors center’s stretch of skylights provide such abundant natural lighting that the days when artificial lights will have to be used promise to be few. The building’s graceful wood construction and its elegant, soon to be vine-covered pergola give the visitor the feeling of being in the woods. Inside, the colorful informational panels, which mix the vibrant photography of Alison Shaw with the sage words of Mrs. Hill, draw visitors into an educational journey.
For those who were inspired by what they saw on Saturday, Mr. Lacy says that the beauty of gardening is that it is — unlike playing the piano —  something one learns by jumping in full force. Once one has been infected by the passion, very little previous knowledge is required to begin, he said.
“The young child who puts an okra seed in a pot of dirt, waters it and then watches it with fascination as it becomes a living plant, has as much claim to being a gardener as Russell Paige or Christopher Lloyd,” said Mr. Lacy. “That young child who plants his or her first seed, senses intuitively that the act is significant for the future — the beginning of a committed way of life with rich and varied ramifications to come.”