For nearly half a century, Stan Kozak has cultivated his status as the green thumb behind the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s courtyard displays. Kozak—who joined the Gardner staff when he was 17 years old—is the fourth horticulturist in the museum’s history and its longest-standing one. As he nears the 50-year mark at the Gardner, his influence is still in full bloom.
For the rest of the year, Kozak is once again collaborating on the courtyard spectacle with landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy, who has also worked with the Museum of Fine Arts and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, as well as assisting Yo-Yo Ma in designing the Toronto Music Garden. Aside from fine-tuning the displays, the pair plan to blend hydrangeas in with a bunch of iteas.
“I always work with designers to tweak the courtyard,” Kozak explains. “We do have a game plan that’s been etched in stone for years to highlight certain stars of the show, but we like to experiment and get different ideas.”
As part of turning over the seasonal displays every four to six weeks, Kozak and his team oversee the transportation of plants and other gardening materials from greenhouses located nearly 30 miles away in Hingham. Kozak is often replacing flora and greenery throughout the year—no easy feat, with the unreliable New England weather and temperamental plants that might need to be swapped out two to three different times during a display’s run.
Kozak has nearly as much history with the museum as the cuttings and seedlings from the courtyard’s almost 500 specimens—some of which can be traced back to Isabella Stewart Gardner’s day. The former Jamaica Plain High School student began his career as an intern working alongside the museum’s horticulturist, John Sullivan, as part of the school’s curriculum. It was Sullivan who convinced Kozak—who had planned to attend UMass Boston—to stick around after graduation. Some 50 years later, Kozak believes his horticultural education is perennial.
“I knew I could learn a lot from those guys who had been doing this for as long as I’ve been doing it now,” Kozak says. “But there’s still a lot to learn. I’m still learning now after being here for 48 years.”
Kozak shares a few tips for all those hoping to get their backyard patios looking like the Gardner’s courtyard.
• To get the deep blue hue of the hydrangeas, Kozak adds aluminum sulfate to his soil. It can even change pink hydrangeas to blue.
• Planting from seed packets can be tricky, as they tend to be fine and clump together. To alleviate this, Kozak adds a little bit of sugar to the packet and shakes it up so the seeds spread evenly when they’re placed in the soil.
• When left unkempt, nasturtiums will naturally morph into a bush-like shape. To get them to grow long like the famed nasturtiums that hang from the Gardner terraces, continuously groom and pick off the flowers as they develop. Kozak does this in the greenhouses when he starts preparing them 10 months ahead of the springtime display.