Mary Vaananen

When I retired from Jelitto Perennial Seeds at the end of last year, my desk was neither memorialized nor mothballed. Gone, however, are old coffee cups, scattered paper clips and cryptic sticky notes. What once was a cluttered desktop has now been re-commissioned as a beautiful office conservatory plant stand.

Mary Vaananen leads Jelitto’s North American public relations from a 280-square foot office in Louisville, KY. (Breeding, seed cleaning and testing, and order fulfillment take place at company headquarters in Schwarmstedt, Germany.) Mary is a skilled horticulturist, communicator, seed sage and poet. She is the artist behind this humble garden and office makeover.

Mary’s botanic menagerie arrived at its winter residence, in several carloads, in mid-October. The plants will return home to roost after late frost where they will be skillfully placed around her and husband Peter’s shotgun house and garden in Louisville’s Highlands. Mary knows, or at least can intuit, what her plants need. She also has a sharp eye for stagecraft.

By way of contrast, think big. Some might say: too big. Amazon, the corporate giant, does horticulture, too.  Amazon’s Downtown Campus, in Seattle, has 40,000 tropical plants in its futuristic office complex. Plants rotate in an out from their support greenhouse in Woodinville, Washington. “The idea (for the Spheres) was conceived as a way to help Amazonians ‘think differently’— to get away from traditional workspaces and get up close to nature.”

Joe Mabel/Wikimedia photo

But “big” is relative. Very few could ever imagine being able to afford, Amazon’s abundance of tender and tropical plants. Maybe Amazon can match Mary for foliage colors and textures, but it is difficult to envision a comparable full-blown, office art installation—big or small—anywhere close to what Mary has created at the Jelitto Perennial Seeds North American office.

Mary Vaananen is close to nature in the office and her home garden, every day. Fifty potted plants may sound small, but it’s impressive. So are Mary’s collages, assembled piece by piece, slowly but surely, since she first started at Jelitto in 2002. Many office workers go to the water cooler for a break. Mary pulls out her scissors. “Painting with bits of paper,” she said.

Mary describes her collages and found pieces: “I think it is a gathering….of art and interesting visual bits….stuff that I don’t seem to throw away. Little nails and push pins help to make it more 3D…so things can dangle. Lots of things are found while walking… (Pacifiers and kids toys like airplane whistles and a rubber ducky necklace, a St. Paddy’s day tiara, beads, and many playing cards!). Clothing tags from items purchased and other things are picked up here and there…cards sent to me from people, beer and wine labels, and all manner of graphic design. I can’t resist an appealing surface.

There are also sheets of art made from Tyvek. Mary explains how these art pieces come together: “The Tyvek art begins with stream-of-consciousness scribbling ….then refinements happen and ideas/shapes begin to take form. Connections need to be made so the thing holds together when hung (like the unseen Web of Life becomes visible). Sometimes there is a theme in mind; sometimes not.”

Life is But a Dream (47″x70″), Collection of Anita Avent

The pieces come and go from Jelitto’s office, once they find new homes. Rose and I have one of Mary’s pieces.

Jelitto’s office space is a one-woman show with few visitors. The postman drops by each day, and the janitor makes the rounds at night. Seed orders come and go. FedEx shows up to deliver and pick up parcels, but it’s not a lonely office.

I feel happier every time I visit.