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Donald Mehlman

Oral History Interview with Donald Mehlman, undertaken by Joshua Wilson and James Curtin at the Dumbarton Oaks Gardeners Lodge on July 24, 2013. At Dumbarton Oaks, Donny Mehlman is a gardener (since 1986).

JW: I’m Joshua Wilson here with James Curtin here, today July 24, 2013. We have the great pleasure of interviewing Donald Mehlman on his relationship with the Dumbarton Oaks gardens over the years. Thank you so much for being here today, Donny.

DM: Okay, thank you.

JW: When and how did you first come to be involved with the Dumbarton Oaks gardens?

DM: Well, I saw an ad in the paper for it, and I applied because I had been visiting the gardens. In the 1960s, I had visited the gardens, and into the 1970s when I moved out of D.C. And then I think I – I think I applied twice. Yeah, because they hired someone for six months then she left and then they hired me to do this – what one person said was to do the “grudge work.”

JW: Gotcha. Do you remember how long ago that was?
DM: Yeah, it’s coming up on 27 years, I think. October 1986.

JW: Wow! Congratulations.

DM: Yeah, it’s a long time. It’s a tough job. Of course it takes a lot of work to take care of yourself, something I try to always do. With all the sun – that’ll undo me one day.

JWC: Did you work in any gardens before Dumbarton Oaks? What was your previous experience?

DM: Well, I had mowing and weeding experience and some gardening experience at a previous job, and from helping my mother – nothing really formal, nothing too formal. There’s also the horticulture side, which you can learn a lot, but I haven’t taken up on all that.

JW: So, Dumbarton Oaks was your first experience working in gardens?

DM: Yes gardens. Yes, a garden setting.

JW: What were your initial impressions of Dumbarton Oaks when you started here?
DM: Well, it’s a pretty nice place. Way off then, my last job was working in parks and cemeteries, so it was a relief not having to worry about the traffic and stuff like that. It was a nice place.  I’ve enjoyed when my mother would take us here. My parents would take us to the park too.

JW: Do you remember what condition the gardens were in when you arrived?
DM: It looked pretty good. The same.
JW: Pretty much the same?

DM: Yeah. Of course, things had deteriorated over time. Trees have come and gone. We’ve had to plant more trees. Things have evolved. A few things they’ve added, a few little structures – Ondine and stuff when I was here – most of it’s about the same.

JW: We’re going to talk about the changes to the gardens a little later, but maybe you can tell us now if you were ever involved in parts of Ondine?

DM: Ah, no. It wasn’t my territory, nor was I involved in any of the landscaping or anything. I worked down the furthest territory, if Gail told you how it’s broken up into sections.

JWC: Can you explain that?

DM: The garden is broken up into sections. So, I work by below Box Walk. Basically below Box Walk bordering Cherry Hill and then Lovers' Lane, then up the north to Lovers' Lane Pool.

JWC: Is the reason why you split up into these territories as opposed to just going out and doing –

DM: Well, I don’t know. They’ve done it this way for a long time. It used to be just two people, you know a head gardener and an assistant gardener and then – before my time. I guess some of that makes it easier. Then you know your territory. At one point they asked to see if people wanted shifts around, but there were too many people.

JW: During the whole time you’ve been here, the territory system has been what’s used?

DM: Right. I’ve been in the same place.

JW: And have you found that to be pretty good for the garden? The territory system?

DM: I think so. I think you get to know what you got to do and take care of it. We had a lot of work – it’s a lot of work down below with the flower borders and roses and all of that. Grass, you know.

JWC: So, you must know that area very well. You’ve been working there for twenty-seven years.

DM: Yeah.

JWC: What insights would you give to someone who’s visiting there for the first time, who’s never seen that part of the garden before?

DM: Insights? Well, it depends on when you come because it’s always different.  The low time is during the summer. We always change the borders. We change both borders over three times a year, so it’s a lot. And sometimes I tell people, well, if you want to see something, it depends on what’s blooming. Like go to Cherry Hill if you’ve never seen it before, it’s good to take a look at it. And the wisteria comes and goes. So, it’s always evolving, planting.

JWC: With the borders that you change out, is there always the same rotation that you go through? Will you ever have discussions with the other gardeners and Gail and say, “maybe we’d like to try something different, a different color or type of flower?”

DM: Well, some of it is all set. The Blisses set certain colors and herbaceous borders in certain colors in the Fountain Terrace. Well, basically we always do it the same. I think now, we’re trying to do less mums. People are saying the mums are overdone – less mums. But we’ve always put in tulips in the fall for the spring and the mums in the fall and annuals and perennials. I’d like to get more perennials. Get more established ones we had before, but lost over time. Get some of it back.

JW: Why do you want more perennials?
DM: It’s a lot easier to have stuff established and growing. You don’t have to replant as much. That’s what they had before.

JW: It would be in the spirit of what they wanted. So, what’s a day in the life of Donny Mehlman like? What do you do on a given day in the garden?
DM: Well, it depends on what it is. We have to mow every – usually every week. Weed every week. Once stuff gets established, sometimes we’re planting. Sometimes we replant the plants in summertime. It can kind of vary. Sometimes we go around with cuttings. Sometimes we get them in; sometimes we make our own cuttings. So, we have to take care of those. We put in pesticides, I guess. We fertilize them, as we’ve done. Then we put pesticides on there. Some stuff against root rot we put on there. There’s always something different to do.

JWC: Have there been any big projects that you’ve worked on in that area recently, in the past few years?

DM: Well, one project we did was an expanded vegetable garden, a bigger vegetable garden. So, that’s a thing. They had sort of a victory garden back in the 1940s, then Gail brought half of it back and then the second half took over part of the mums – we used to have a lot more mums, but we’re cutting back. I don’t know how big we’ll be this year. And then we did – I don’t think too many big projects that actually changed up anything that I can recall. Except replanting – ah and no, there was the project to put in more trees. But we didn’t plant the trees, we just maintain them now. That’s all that I can think of.

JW: What role did you play in the installation of the vegetable garden – or its reintroduction?
DM: Not a whole lot. All I did was – we all got together to make the beds, create the beds, get fertilizer and organic material in there and that kind of stuff. Anastassia does a lot of that kind of work down there. And now it’s even expanding across the road to that parking lot area over there. It’s more work and some people say, “More work!”

JWC: I’m curious to hear a little more about the cherry trees, because Washington, D.C. is so well known for the Cherry Blossom Festival in the spring. And we have some wonderful cherry trees here. Can you tell us a little about that? A few parts: the first being the upkeep of them. Am I correct in saying they are a difficult tree to take care of?

DM: I couldn’t say specifically about the cherry trees because that’s not my territory. So, some of them are getting kind of old, so they need pruning and stuff like that. It’s one big mass of them. It’s nice during the spring, that kind of stuff like that. They’ve put new ones in. I can’t really elaborate. We do have a tree company come in and do a lot of work.

JW: What’s the biggest way the garden has changed in almost your thirty years of working in it?
DM: Wow, that’s a big question. Well, we’ve added a few more people. We used to only have three people per crew. They’ve added a few more people. Two crews have four people and one crew still has three people. Then summer help, and they’ve added these new internships. I guess they wanted to work on some different projects. I think the biggest thing that’s probably changed is technology. More with computers and graphics and stuff like that. Not all of it is hands-on. We used to – my first superintendent of grounds was more hands-on and doing things and doing some of the work he worked before. But now Gail doesn’t get in and do the grudge work too much. And now of course they want to map stuff and are worried about mapping trees and keeping control of the trees and more about runoff. That’s all a push for the park, which has a new conservancy which overlooks that. Stuff – pipes – are getting old.

JW: Have the focuses of the leadership changed at all? People who used to be in Gail’s position – were they more interested in one thing and she’s kind of changed the interests of the staff, or would you say it’s been pretty much –

DM: No, I’d say it’s probably changed. There’s been a lot more information. They did – when they did the renovation and reconstruction, they did a survey of everything – the landscape – more records being kept than before. For example, going back to that pit house. What really happened there, they started to work on it, then they found asbestos and had to stop for people to take care of that. I’m not sure what they’re going to do in the future. Someone had a proposal – asked for a proposal about building it back. That’s a big thing that’s been buried for a long time. That was recently that they’ve uncovered that.

JW: When was it that it was uncovered?
DM: Just a few years ago. Just a year or two ago. Yeah, we’re working on it. Digging and digging, finding it.

JW: Has it been incorporated into any plans that are for sure yet, or is it still speculative at this point?
DM: I’m not sure what’s going to happen to it. At this point, they’ve had a couple interns do projects on it. One’s working on it this year.

JW: Speaking of the interns, how has their work changed the work you do or the way the garden functions?

DM: Well, I think you have people who will do GPS, GPS mapping. They want a few people to learn that here too. Interns come and go, and there is only a certain time of the year they stay here, so we probably need to get a couple people into it and learn more about it – get new devices to learn about it. There’s been a couple of other projects. There was a history of the kitchen garden, and then the pit house that intern studies. Hopefully something comes of it because its just been sitting there down there.

JWC: Do you think that this new technology will eventually change how you do your job, or someone who has your position in the future? Or is the technology more for a back office perspective to look at an overall picture?

DM: Well, it could be a little bit of both. I don’t think I do a whole lot in my job through computer work. The actual job would be designing, which you can do on a computer. You can visualize more stuff. You can visualize what the pit house would look like on the computer, and that probably helps a lot. I would say better digital record keeping. You need to keep a record of pesticides. You can digitize – totally computerize.

JW: To your mind, what is the importance of that record keeping?

DM: Some of it depends on what you’re doing, if you have to keep it for regulatory reasons. You can look back and see what you’re doing. Then of course when they grow stuff they put down records of when it was started and planted. Of course, it could be a better way of preserving because it’s also hard to preserve papers and that’s a big thing.

JWC: Have you ever in the time you’ve been here had occasion to look back at the records that have been kept since you’ve first started working here to see how you approached a particular problem when it came up again, or is that not really something that you would do?

DM: No, I haven’t. I haven’t gone back and looked at the stuff. I’m not sure of what interest it would be. I even took a lot of pictures over time, but I haven’t even put that together to see how things have changed – how the gardens have changed. Most of it is pretty much the same; of course they’ve added art installations which is a new thing – try to attract more visitors in and get peoples' interest.

JW: While you’ve been at Dumbarton Oaks, you have seen a lot of directors come and go. Robert Thomson, Angeliki Laiou, Ned Keenan.

DM: You found that out I guess. I guess you made the conclusion based on how long I’ve been working here.

JW: Yeah, that’s right. Do you remember any of those people? Could you tell us a little bit about them?

DM: Well, it’s hard to go way back to when I started. It was Robert Thomson. You meet these people sometime when you first start, and you don’t see a lot of them. You don’t see a whole lot in the gardens. Robert Thomson was allergic to pollen or flowers or something.

JW: So, definitely didn’t see much of him [laughing].

DM: Right. I forget how long he was here. Some people are here for five-year increments; some are here for seven years. I think Jan has been more outgoing then all of them. He’s changed things up and had meetings. Of course, he did a big survey and it’s the first time they did a survey about the staff, how the staff feels. What they like and dislike going forward.

JW: And that’s been a better atmosphere?

DM: But it’s more with Gail and the crew leaders. And occasionally you see them out there, but not often. There might have been a change when they got the director’s house off the main campus, but still close. Most things come through Gail.

JW: Do you ever have a chance to walk through the gardens without work on your mind, just for recreation?
DM: No I haven’t. No I haven’t. At some times, it used to be people would ask you questions about some other part of the garden and then you’d have to go over and see what it is that’s blooming and you might know what it is. I don’t actually take the extra time to come through the gardens and spend time in it. Most of the time. If I did spend extra time it would be the swimming pool. It used to be at the beginning when I first started, we used to work and get together at certain parts of the year and do leaves and a lot of times we don’t move around as much as we used to. The same crews in the same territories. It would be good if I could look around and see what’s changing. Sometimes the landscape changes some because some things don’t work and they plant new things to see how that’ll go, but I actually haven’t gotten a chance to go back and see. We don’t have time for too many walkthroughs with the staff. It’d be nice to do that a couple of times a year.

JWC: Even though you don’t go through for recreation, are there any parts of the garden that you’d say are especially beautiful?

JW: A favorite part of the gardens?

DM: Oh, I see. The rose garden was one of the favorites of the Blisses – should take a lot of work. Some of the older roses are like the worst roses for disease. Wish I could tell the people what to do when they first started planting roses. Things have evolved. Plants and people have evolved colors and disease-resistant plants. And even the landscape has changed here with planting elm trees instead of silver maples, which are kind of a trashy tree. And some places have more direction. One of the good things about Dumbarton Oaks is that they have records going all the way back. You could find the records from Beatrix Farrand. Some places don’t have all the records of what is their directive and the plan. They followed certain designs, the trees are a certain way, maple trees or they use other trees that are better over time.

JWC: What about the way that you garden? How has that changed? Even something as simple as pesticides have changed a lot since you first started.

DM: A lot of the changes are because certain things you can’t use anymore. It hasn’t changed a lot in my time because we had all the power equipment, but you hear the stories about the people in the 1960s and stuff that did a lot of handwork. Hand mowing or sweeping when they don’t have all that equipment. That’s evolved. It makes for more noise. Sometimes you don’t know what the level of that is. But I do take precautions for that. We’ve had the mowers – we’ve had different mowers that have become better, easier to push around. That’s about it.

JW: You mentioned that you don’t have too much opportunity to walk through the gardens. Have you spoken with guests who have come through? Have they ever shared their thoughts with you?
DM: Occasionally, not too often do I interrelate with people. Some people, but not too often. People come from different places.

JW: Do you remember anything folks have told you over the years about their experiences?

DM: About the garden you mean?
JW: Yes.

DM: Well, we had one person who used to come here for many years, but most of the people – visitors – visiting on tours or docent-related things. It’s more with the docents who give tours who interact with people.

JWC: Have you picked up much of the history of the gardens since you’ve been here?

DM: Excuse me?

JWC: Have you learned much of the history behind the gardens since you’ve been here?
DM: I’ve learned a lot of what people think – it’s high on the list of the best gardens. Though we might see it differently working here, people see it and like it here and like the work we do. There is history here and of course with the house. The house goes way back. Then of course in the 1940s, the big conference. Respective of the history, I get enjoyment out of it after all these years.

JW: How would you describe Beatrix Farrand's design for the garden?

DM: As compared to something else?
JW: Yeah, what makes this garden unique?

DM: Well, I think – in relationship to Beatrix Farrand or – well in relation to Beatrix Farrand, I think it’s one of the most complete gardens that still exists. I don’t know much of the landscape design in different places with landscape designers. I hadn’t visited many other places, I don’t visit other places. Even close, you can do the tours in a couple of hours. These exotics – they get so much during the first half of the 1900s. They have all those records and information. Sometimes it amazes me that some places don’t have it – and well funded. The way they keep the money going, it’s well funded. That being said, it could be more funded but there seems to be money for different projects that they’ve changed. One thing that they have changed around was the Ellipse. The Ellipse was changed when they did a symposium – a wetland symposium or something – and they made it more like wetlands kind of thing.

JW: Was that when they put in the aquatic garden?

DM: They already had aquatic plants, but they sort of planned the whole thing and put fish in there and frogs and stuff. Now it’s a whole – it used to just be tubs of plants. It used to be tubs, now it’s a whole big thing. It’s continuous, but that’s one of the biggest new things. That’s probably the biggest new thing. They like to do these art instillations.

JWC: With something like that, is it coming more from the perspective of an artist or someone who’s looking to create a visual image, or would a design like that come from a gardener who wanted to try something new?

DM: The art instillations?

JWC: Not so much the art instillations, but the project like you were just talking about…

DM: The Ellipse, you mean? No, I think that was – it was an outgrowth of a symposium and just kept growing. We have that. I’m unsure what initiated these art instillations and stuff and what the relationship to the artist is. I think they want to bring in more people. They keep some of them going for a while and some of them have to be taken down. One has sculptures that might be preserved, but the clouds will disappear.

JW: What do you think about that? Do you think that's a good move getting rid of the cloud?

DM: Well, of course they have to change things up. The word is they want to go back on the Arbor Terrace to what it was or something different. What was proposed but never happened. They want to dig it up and put irrigation in. Yeah, I guess in some ways you look and it’s sort of artificial. You can see the poles in the clouds, and the crystals. But it does look really neat when you look at it from a distance. People have a lot of different comments on it. A lot of people like it.

JW: We understand that you’re the guy to go to for the fun stories about Dumbarton Oaks. All your colleagues rave about how funny your stories are. We were wondering –

DM: That’s not always true. I don't recall – I’ve been here a long time, but don’t always remember about the stuff or the parties or the things that used to happen. We don’t really have any, just birthdays or other – mostly for birthdays and other things. No, I don’t really have too many stories about people. There are some people like Rigo Castellon I worked with a long in the same place in the same territory. Of course, Miguel has been here a long time. About 24 years now.

JWC: You’ve worked together that whole time he’s been here, or was he in a different territory?

DM: I worked with Rigo the whole time. Miguel worked first in the greenhouse, but he sort of changed that around and then he’s been working out front. Then he went back to the greenhouse and out front and became crew leader when other people retired. People moved around and retired. Some people retired. A few people retired. A couple people didn’t, passed away before they could retire.

JWC: It seems like the staff that you have here, although there is a lot of young blood, it seems like there’s a fair amount of people who have worked here their entire careers, right? Is that fairly unique for the garden, or are there generally a lot of people who spend their lives working here?

DM: No, we’ve had people in the past who’ve been here for a long time. I couldn’t tell you if this was the exception or not. It’s exceptional as a part of the Dumbarton Oaks campus as a whole. Academics want to do different things or move up, or whatever they do. They don’t stay here for a long time. There’ve been a few people who stayed here for a long time. A lot of gardeners have been, you know, thirteen years, some five, six, seven years. Most have been here for a while. The youngest has been here maybe four years – not youngest, but shortest amount of time, has been about four years. No! Two years, two years, and then one four years, yeah. We seem to have most people stay here a long time.

JWC: So, with some of the scholars, they come and go every six months or however often, and new people come in; but, in the past, there have been certain individuals who have lived here – who have lived close by and worked here permanently. Have you run into any of them? The one that comes to mind for me is Alexander Kazhdan, who was a Russian man.

DM: Right, right. He was a Senior Research Fellow here.

JWC: I know he spent a lot of time in the gardens. People had stories about how, every spring, he and his wife would go out and they would pick certain – they used to like to pick certain berries –

JW: The quince.

JWC: Yeah. They would make jam.

DM: Yeah, some people like the quinces.

JWC: Did you ever run into them when they were just walking through?

DM: Yeah, yeah, I didn’t really interrelate with them. They were walking, you know – heart trouble, had to do a lot of walking. Yeah, I remember, some people – I gave away some of the quince, but now I don’t know if we have that many at all, but I don’t know anybody who collects them any more. One quince tree. Now they cut back, now they’re even changing who lives where. Very few people that I see permanently live on the – well, the only permanent house is for the Director. That’s about the extent of it, and then they have other housing for research Fellows and other Fellows and Senior Fellows. They’re getting another building and then they’re going to close down one building, so – but yeah, used to have people live – security people live here, and the former Director of Grounds live here, but now that’s all changed. They’ve changed all that around, which is not my decision, so I’m not involved in that. I sort of just work here. Yeah, I mean most of the time we just work here and whatever happens happens, you know. But I can always put my two cents worth in.

JW: Right. Anything especially memorable ever happen in your time here that you want to commit to posterity?

DM: Memorable – well I’ve seen a lot of people, you know – a lot of people come and go. In the past, more people come and go, and some people – summer help, lot of summer help. And some people weren’t – they were just hiring people and some people weren’t cut out for it, and other people couldn’t fit right. One person came from Baltimore, and just too much for him doing that. And so, it’s been an experience. I haven’t taken advantage of all the facilities that are here, like the swimming pool. I haven’t taken full advantage of that, which would be a good idea, to do that. Wish I could enlighten you more on stories, but – yeah, it’s been kind of fun working with certain people. [A walky-talky goes off and, after a few seconds of noise and tinkering, is turned off.] Yeah, that’s the new technology, these radios. We’ve had them for a long time, but that’s a new thing.

JW: Has that made the work any easier or – ?

DM: Well, sometimes it can, if you want to locate somebody and you’re in one part of the garden. Well, Gail got into that because she kept worrying about going out into the garden and shouting for people to find their location. Yeah.

JW: Right.

DM: But now some of the departments have radios so they can be contacted on different channels. But yeah, it helps, it helps a lot to find someone, if you want to tell somebody something or know where they are, you want to find him.

JW: So, somebody interested in gardening is reading the transcript of this interview five years from now: what do you want to tell that person about gardening in general, your time at Dumbarton Oaks in particular?

DM: Well, this job of course involves, as I say, the grudge work, which is the mowing, weed eating. And gardening is a different thing, and horticulture is more the study of plants, so, you know – some people have gotten into landscape design; people study plants. Of course, I mean, in doing landscape design, you’re going to have to know your plants, you know, and your location, you know, this area. Yeah, so it’s not always the glamorous thing you think it is, you know, doing some of that stuff. Always going to be grass. It’s a historic garden, you know, costs too much to have the – a lot of estates are going by the wayside, being sold up, divided up, turned into something else, campuses. So, it’s not much, if new people came, inroads to getting in, until somebody leaves or retires or passes, you know. Once they’ve passed on, it can happen. There’s always a lot of work to go around: people need gardeners to do – there’s enough grass here and enough weeds to keep you going. Just keep the plants going through all the seasons. So, it’s been – I mean, I’ve never gotten used to the summers or the winters; I’ve never gotten used to that, too hot or too cold.

JW: Well, we’re coming towards the end of our time together, Donny. Is there anything that we’ve neglected to ask that you want to bring up?

DM: Yeah, I was also saying, I think it’s – in my time, it’s changed: more Spanish-speaking people working here, taking over a little bit. That was a big change in the past ten years or so. I don’t, if that’s just the way – well, sometimes the way it just evolves, when a person knows somebody and they bring somebody in, which has happened, stuff like that. So, there’s a lot of Spanish – it’s good to learn Spanish, but I haven’t, so. I think it’s a pretty good environment, pretty loose environment, not too rigid – rigid structure, be timely, not timely. Well, thank you for the interview, and I hope I gave some insights.

JW: Yeah, this has been great. Thank you so much.