Missing the Vineyard:
Polly Hill Sends Her Regrets: 'The Trees Will Be Beckoning'

By C.K. WOLFSON

A revered and familiar presence will be missing from the Polly Hill Arboretum this summer. Declaring, "Old age has caught up with me, and I can't deny it," the arboretum's founder, 97-year-old Polly Hill, made the decision to remain at her residential community in Delaware, Md. throughout the year.

It will be the first summer without Mrs. Hill in residence at the West Tisbury arboretum since 1958, when she began creating what has become an internationally recognized horticultural and botanical landmark.

A Vassar graduate and amateur horticulturist, she was 50 when she decided to dedicate 20 acres of a 60-acre historic Island sheep farm to a primarily seed-grown arboretum with a mission to educate, cultivate and preserve.

Mrs. Hill's efforts have contributed information on growing conditions specific to the Vineyard, as well as developing new varieties of plants. Without a greenhouse, she developed nearly 100 horticultural varieties and tended over 2,000 species.

Mrs. Hill relinquished her administrative responsibilities in 1996 when the arboretum was established as a nonprofit organization, but has continued to contribute her ideas.

Arboretum gardener Suzy Zell, who worked with Mrs. Hill for 20 years, referred to her as being "like my grandma." Ms. Zell said, "She was a kind of tough cookie when she started. She wanted things done the way she wanted them done."

She mellowed in the course of time, Ms. Zell said.

Sharing a favorite memory, Ms. Zell said, "I will particularly miss our afternoons. After her naps at three or four o'clock we'd go across the road together to get the mail and have one-on-one time. It was a time for just us."

Mrs. Hill, conveying her thoughts to the Gazette, noted, "Every breath of fragrant sea-washed air is a joy I shall miss. The trees will be beckoning to me to come and admire - the fields, the flowers, my porch with a view to the woods and fields, the pig, the owl, the walls, the Vineyard. I will miss seeing new growth and learning the many new plants. Since I was about 12, I guess, there has always been a Vineyard visit."

She mentioned director Stephen A. Spongberg, Ms. Zell, curator Tim Boland and the "wonderful people" on the arboretum staff, all of whom, she stressed, she will miss.

"I would not subject them to my aging condition," she stated. "I must not fall. Walking is not possible without some support."

Referring to her residential community in Delaware as being "geared to aging people," Mrs. Hill mentioned the pleasure she is taking in reading an endless supply of mystery books, touring the ponds and woods on the grounds in her electric cart and gazing out on the view from her eighth floor corner apartment "where I can see four states." She added, "How have I ever been so lucky?"

"It really is the end of an era," said Mr. Spongberg. "She's been a motivating force."

Mr. Spongberg reminisced about Mrs. Hill's custom of inviting the staff to join her for lunch on her back porch and the free-flowing conversations that ensued about whatever was on anyone's mind.

"It was always a wonderful time for us, and we're not going to have that again," Mr. Spongberg said.