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A passion for plants: Evergreen man nurtured an abiding love for gardening

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By Stephen Knapp

“There can be no other occupation like gardening in which, if you were to creep up behind someone at their work, you would find them smiling.”

— Mirabel Osler

It’s a lucky man who discovers his passion early in life.

It’s a lucky man whose passion can provide his daily pint and pail.

It’s a lucky man who, after a life of ardent purpose, can look back on a world better for his passion.

By each and all of those standards, longtime Evergreen resident Andrew Pierce, who passed away on Sept. 17 at age 75, was a lucky man.

“Gardening was his passion,” says Andrew’s wife, Gina. “He never wanted to do anything else.”

Fact is, a case could be made that Andrew Pierce was born to his passion. His father served as gardener of an ivy-draped English country estate called Lee Priory, and young Andrew grew up with his fingers buried in the dark earth of County Kent and his mind alight with the green mysteries of growing things. But where his father came by his knowledge of the garden through time and toil alone, Andrew’s blossoming interest demanded more scholarly cultivation.

In the proper season, he left Lee Priory’s quaint and gabled gardener’s cottage for Kent Horticultural College’s staid halls, earning the honors and expertise that soon landed him a position with the Canterbury Parks Department. Again distinguishing himself in the most English of disciplines, Andrew was accepted into the most English of institutions, London’s venerable and renowned Kew Gardens, where his rapidly greening thumb would reap official accolades for both industry and ability.

While few fellows of still-tender years could boast such attainments, Andrew’s two most treasured honors lay ahead, on the banks of the Mersey. It was during a tour as foreman of Liverpool’s parks department that he wooed and won a lovely city girl named Georgina (“Gina” to friends) and, in 1962, received the greatest tribute England can grant to those who ply the soil — the Royal Horticultural Society’s National Diploma.

“That’s probably the thing he was most proud of,” says Gina. She means the diploma, even though Andrew consistently applied a less academic standard of ranking to his accomplishments.

With the Royal Society’s sheepskin still warm in his hand, Andrew bade his new bride to join him in Bermuda, where for 13 years he applied himself to mastery of the island’s unique vegetable inventory — landscaping expansive resort properties, beautifying the island’s public spaces on behalf of Bermuda’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, and volunteering his talents to the Bermuda National Trust. All were posts of considerable responsibility and prestige for a man not yet 40, and none could offer the challenge and variety to which Andrew aspired.

“He’d gone about as far as he could go on Bermuda,” Gina recalls. “Then he saw an ad in a magazine that said the Denver Botanic Gardens was looking for a new superintendent. We didn’t think he’d get it because he wasn’t American, but he applied for it anyway.”

It’s not every day that a resume like Andrew’s crosses the hiring desk, and in the summer of Colorado’s centennial year the couple — now with two sons in tow — forsook balmy Bermuda for the Colonies. The Rocky Mountain West agreed with the Pierces from the first. Gina and the boys loved their new house set amid the thick pine and fir stands that blanket Independence Heights in Evergreen. Andrew loved the seemingly infinite variety of unfamiliar plant species native to the region. And the still-green and somewhat rootless Denver Botanic Gardens loved its new superintendent of the Boettcher Memorial Conservatory.

“I have never met anyone who had a broader knowledge of the plant kingdom,” writes DBG’s senior curator, Panayoti Kelaidis. “Show him a twig of a tropical tree, an obscure herbaceous perennial cultivar or a high alpine cushion plant, and he would likely know the botanical name and a good deal of scientific lore about it.”

But even more than as a gifted horticulturist, colleagues remember Andrew as a friend without peer. “I doubt that I would have stayed at Denver Botanic Gardens my first few challenging years were it not for his attentiveness, his guidance and above all his warmth of heart and irrepressible humor,” Kelaidis continues. “I know many others would say the same.”

Andrew wore many gardening hats during his 18 years with the Botanic Gardens, and he wore them passionately — propagator, senior horticultural advisor, acting director. There was and remains no facet of the institution’s development or design that hasn’t directly benefited from his deep knowledge, broad experience and lofty vision.

Like the stately blue spruce that symbolize the Pierces’ adopted home, true passion knows no winter. When he wasn’t busy tending his lush York Street gardens, Andrew delighted in guiding botanists of every age and ability through some of the planet’s most glorious arboretums, verdant wonders as near as the wind-sculpted bristlecone thickets of Mount Goliath, and as far away as the exotic natural and cultivated greeneries of New Zealand and South Africa. He leant his considerable influence to the support and leadership of groups like the American Rock Garden Society, the Vail Alpine Gardens, and Green Industries of Colorado, to name only a few, and when he found momentary respite from those happy labors, he lavished his attention on the English garden enfolding his mountain home. Such demands on one’s energy and attention could drive another person to nervousness and distraction, but that isn’t the way with passion.

“He had the most placid personality I’ve ever seen,” Gina says. “Always positive, always eager to share knowledge.”

The last, and arguably brightest, season of Andrew’s life opened in 1994, when the interests behind Littleton’s nascent Hudson Gardens and Event Center tapped him to design and populate the 16 distinctive leafy parcels that would make up their grand venture. Before he was finished, Andrew would rise to gardens director of the enterprise and bring forth a lush and orderly universe upon the dry and unyielding prairie.

 

“It was the biggest challenge of his life,” Gina says, proudly. “He created 30 acres of gardens from scratch — out of rocks and weeds. He absolutely loved it.”

Many who devote their hands and heads and hearts to matters herbaceous profess the very highest motivations. Within plants, they say, exist the cure to disease, the solution to hunger, the key to planetary salvation. While the humble gardener’s son may well have entertained such soaring ideas during his long and productive career, the roots of his infatuation were a bit more down to earth.

“He just loved the beauty of plants,” Gina explains. “Nature was his passion.”

And the world is better for it.