ENCINITAS — Patricia Hammer’s whimsical topiaries have generated smiles and laughter from the Chicago Botanic Gardens to as far away as the Western Village (theme park) in the Nikko National Park, Japan.
The director of operations at the San Diego Botanic Garden remembers the exact moment the seed was planted that led to a career in horticulture.
“My parents owned the interior of a (city) block in Cedarville, N.J. where they grew cut flowers,” she said. “I would visit with my best friend, Carol. One day we walked away with an armful of bachelor buttons we had just picked. That was my first awareness of plants.”
Like many young people, Hammer lacked direction after graduating from high school. That led to a visit to Cumberland County Community College where she discovered the word “horticulture” in the catalog.
“I didn’t know what ‘horticulture’ meant,” she said. “When I learned what it was, I realized it was for me!”
After graduating in 1973, opportunity didn’t exactly come knocking. It was the peak of the feminist movement, and women were fighting for equality.
“I’m normally a private person, but young women need to know this today,” she said. “All the guys I graduated with went into middle management. Because I was a woman, I had to start at the bottom and work my way up.”
Hammer got an entry-level job as a propagator at a small nursery. After getting married, she and her husband started The Tree Farm in Little Britain, Pa.
Her big break came in 1976 when she was hired as a production greenhouse worker at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., one of the largest, most celebrated public gardens in the world.
“Eventually I was asked to develop children’s and topiary gardens,” she said. “The ideas came from me, then I worked with an artist and a frame maker. I credit the artist with the ability to read my mind. The frame makers are phenomenal.”
Another door opened when she was asked to propagate plants for the topiaries.
“Longwood had an endless supply of plants but, in the end, ivy worked the best,” she said.
In 1990, Hammer was elected president of the American Ivy Society. That was followed by publication of her book, “The New Topiary: Imaginative Techniques from Longwood Gardens.”
“By that time, I was so immersed in topiaries that I had to do it all the time,” she said. “I started looking where people were growing ivy — I needed to be where ivy was.”
In the early 1990s, Hammer traveled to an “Animals in the Garden” event in San Diego where she met Evelyn Weidner of Weidner Gardens in Encinitas.
“They were doing fascinating things with ivy at Weidner’s,” she said. The women forged a collaboration. Hammer started Sami Rose Topiary, leasing greenhouses on Weidner’s property and using ivy to craft topiaries.
“Pat’s knowledge goes beyond ivy,” Weidner said. “When she was with the Longwood Gardens, they would do a fall event with an ivy dragon where its tail would go into the ground and come out again.”
Weidner was also impressed with the authenticity of her book.
“Often someone will make something look great in the photograph, but it will soon grow out of proportion,” she said. “The average person will think it’s their fault and be turned off to gardening. What Pat did is to make a topiary that honestly portrayed how the plant would grow.”
During this time Hammer became a popular speaker and consultant at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, New York Botanical Garden, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (Richmond, Va.), Cypress Gardens (Winterhaven, Fla.) and Universal Studios.
She was also involved in the San Diego Horticulture Society and served on a committee in 2005 for developing a children’s garden at San Diego Botanic Garden. That led to her current position as director of operations.
“Pat’s a true public garden executive and we are very fortunate to have her,” said CEO Julian Duval. “Our ability to attract top talent isn’t the same as better-endowed gardens, so we lucked out since we are still growing and establishing ourselves.”
Hammer’s topiaries can be viewed throughout San Diego Botanic Garden at 230 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas. For more information, call (760) 436-3036 or visit sdbgarden.org.