An Interview with the Founder of Gamine and Issa.

For most people, getting photographed by legendary New York Times lensman Bill Cunningham would have been a source of pride. For Taylor Johnston, though, Cunningham’s shot of her installing the famous nasturtium vines at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum decades ago, led to a reckoning. Embarrassed by the outfit she wore that day, she decided she would “make the kinds of work clothing Bill and I adored—simple, utilitarian, handsome elements of a uniform,” she says. Those designs for herself have since grown into cult workwear label Gamine. Taylor’s first love, though, remains gardening. “I’ve been working with plants and in gardens for over 20 years—public and private projects, from building meadows in remote places to installing gardens at big city art museums. For the last seven years I’ve been toiling with esteemed nurseryman, Ed Bowen in our collaborative nursery, issima. It’s just the two of us and we propagate everything in house,” she says. Both Gamine and issima are based in Tiverton, RI. 

Below, the former philosophy major shares the plant that never fails to stop her in her tracks, the best garden to visit in all of New England, and the most artful DIY seedling dibber we’ve ever seen.

Photography courtesy of issima, unless otherwise noted.

Above: Taylor at issima wearing Gamine’s Deck Sweater. All Gamine pieces are made in the USA. Photograph by Hope Millham.

Your first garden memory:

When I was little, I was “helping” my father clear the land around the house he built; the land was at one time an old orchard in this storied part of Maryland where the Underground Railroad ran through town. I found an antique diamond ring in the muck and ran to show my mom, who took it to an antique dealer who said it was incredibly old and likely slipped off a finger…. The mystery (both the dark and light sides of the equation) and curiosity of that encounter lingers and is forever a part of my connection to gardens. (I still have the ring.)

Garden-related book you return to time and again:

The garden literature of interest these days tends to be related to specific taxa we’re playing with at the nursery—Maurice Foster’s recent manuscript, The Hydrangea: A Reappraisal, and John Massey and Tomoo Mabuchi’s unbelievable tour of Hepatica, My World of Hepaticas. I will admit to occasionally picking up Katherine S. White, especially for her ramblings on nursery catalogs. A somewhat necessary reminder that I’m not doing something completely insane with my life.

Plant that makes you swoon:

Sanguisorba &#8\2\16;Drama Queen&#8\2\17;
Above: Sanguisorba ‘Drama Queen’

Sanguisorba ‘Drama Queen’—a selection made by my partner, Ed Bowen, when he was operating as a one-man show under the nursery name, Opus. Sanguisorba ‘Drama Queen’ was selected from var. parviflora, but with clear tenuifolia influence in its taller stature and longer inflorescences. It has an incredibly sturdy, upright habit with many pendulous white bottlebrush flowers on 4- to 6-foot stems in early summer. It’s easy and floriferous in a range of conditions, but especially where it’s not too wet or too dry. The plant is incredibly beautiful and as luck would have it, stubbornly slow to propagate. Every year when it flowers, it stops me in my tracks. At various points of the day I find myself standing in front of the planting admiring its dynamic movement in the breeze and the number of winged insects that hover in its ether.

Plant that makes you want to run the other way:

For the past few years, most Dahlias. It’s not that I dislike Dahlias, I just feel bludgeoned by their incessant presence. We can’t live on a diet of twinkies alone…

Gardening or design trend that needs to go:

Dogmatic thinking.

Favorite gardening hack:

Above: Her partner Ed artfully upcycled a dinner fork into a seedling pricker.

It’s probably too crass to say pee-cycling, so let’s instead go with any number of propagation tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way, one of my favorites being the way Ed coils a fork’s prongs for pricking seedlings.

Favorite way to bring the outdoors in.

Cut Sanguisorba cultivars in a vase. Photograph by Phillip Huynh.
Above: Cut Sanguisorba cultivars in a vase. Photograph by Phillip Huynh.

Cut flowers. Nothing feels more luxurious than cutting a special bouquet from your own garden to bring indoors.

Every garden needs a…

Gardener. For without a gardener, a garden can’t exist.  The impermanence of a garden is both vice and virtue.

Favorite hardscaping material:

Found and antique stone.

Tool you can’t live without:

Above: Taylor often uses her pencil to show scale in images of plants. Here, it’s placed on top of a Saxifraga ‘Master Blaster’, one of issima’s new offerings this year.

A pencil. A proper pencil is the best thing to write on plant tags if you need them to stay legible for many years. Every gardener I know has a little scribble sheet for notes/ideas–ink will bleed when it gets wet and unlike my notes app, a pencil doesn’t require a battery. Beyond the obvious uses, the tip of a pencil can push seeds that land in a pot too close together, and it’s the perfect scale in photos. In a pinch it can even hold my bun.

Favorite nursery, plant shop, or seed company:

The Sakonnet Plant Fair, which happens the first Saturday of May in Little Compton, RI. Just shy of 30 specialist nurseries gather on the town commons for an epic day of ornamental and culinary treasure.

Not-to-be-missed public garden/park/botanical garden:

Sakonnet Garden in Little Compton, Rhode Island—if you can only go to one garden in New England, this is the one.

Thanks so much, Taylor! You can follow her on Instagram @issima_ and @gamine_co.

See also:

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