We come from the earth,
we return to the earth
and in between, we garden.
— Alfred Austin
Paul Wellman (file)
Virginia Hayes, the longtime curator of the living collection at Lotusland, shared her love of gardens and gardening generously, through her work, her writings, and her life.
We come from the earth,
we return to the earth
and in between, we garden.
— Alfred Austin
The Hub of the Wheel — that’s how Virginia referred to her personal self; her professional self as Curator of all Living Things behind the fabled pink walls at Lotusland; her reputation as the gardening goddess who wrote intriguing, interesting, and informative columns for the Santa Barbara Independent from 2009 to 2016; and her world-renowned reputation as a leading authority on Nelumbo nucifera, the lotus — will live on forever in the hearts and minds of plant people of the world.
But, we knew her as our friend.
For nigh on 38 years, I knew Virginia as a friend and a fellow professional in the “plant world.” Like many of Virginia’s relationships, this one started calmly, thoughtfully, watchfully, until things were settled — then the big, joyful laughing began, often until we were crying and holding our aching sides.
In 1980, Stevie Sheatsley and I had recently launched our business, Santa Barbara Water Gardens and Landscapes. One day, at our aquatic plant nursery on East Mountain Drive, up the driveway walked photographer and historian Tom Moore with his friend Virginia — statuesque, with her Joni Mitchell cheekbones and beauty. She was recently a single mother, looking for work to complete her college degree. The fates were with us, the deal was sealed, and Virginia joined “the girlfriends.” Together we worked like the dickens cleaning ponds, mixing cement, and building water gardens and waterfalls, propagating water lilies and lotus and all manner of gorgeous aquatic plants. We planted water gardens for the projects of estate builder Bobby Webb in the years of his penguin rookeries and wildlife habitats. We maintained blooming, camera-ready water gardens and lakes for office complexes and private homes as far south as Malibu and up into Santa Ynez Valley.
As volunteers, we maintained the lake at Alice Keck Park Garden for many years as a gift to the City of Santa Barbara. All the while, Virginia was in the thick of it and also raising two beautiful children and completing her bachelor of science degree in botany at UCSB. Now there is a real-life Wonder Woman. During those years, we shared lots of banter to get though the sometimes cold and heavy work-a-day. We gave each other nicknames like Princess Pickerel, Empress of Slime, or Lotus Queen. Virginia’s stuck like the mud we waded through. She really did become the Lotus Queen, but that came a little later.
In 1985, S.B. Water Gardens & Landscapes became a founding member of the International Water Lily and Water Garden Society. Through friendships made in that group, in May 1987, Virginia and I went off to London, where we spent a couple of weeks helping to build a Gold Medal–winning garden, waterfall, and pond at the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, sponsored by the Sunday Mail newspaper and Stapeley Water Gardens.
As two of the very few women in landscape construction at that time, we garnered plenty of attention — especially when we asked other builders if we could borrow their posthole augers or pickaxes. Virginia’s famous radiant, long blonde hair was like a bolt of molten sunshine in the British gray drizzle.
Back in Santa Barbara, Virginia became S.B. Water Garden’s first nursery manager, publishing its first mail-order catalog. She then bought the landscape construction and maintenance side of the business from me when I moved off to the U.K., France, and parts beyond.
Throughout those years of working, traveling, potluck dinners, going to classes, and writing essays, all while raising her children, Virginia maintained an outer air of calm competence like the proverbial duck, paddling like hell under the water.
— Barbara Davies
When I first met Virginia, some 30 years ago, she was vibrant, hilarious, loving, kind, and generous, and I was charged with taking her to a ranch north of Santa Barbara on the Gaviota Coast. She was to rid a creek of poison oak so that an actor on horseback could run through it and jump over a train track during the filming of Andy Davis’s film Steal Big Steal Little. Since we were also shooting at Lotusland, their curator, Virginia, was the only person the insurance company would approve to oversee the poison oak removal. I recall putting on my most professional voice when I called to ask for her expert guidance. Ever gracious, ready, and willing to share her vast knowledge of the plant kingdom, Virginia agreed. While we watched two production assistants, dressed in near-hazmat suits, machete their way through the vines, we sat together under the shade of a tree, enjoying a picnic. By the end of the day, I knew we were destined to become the best of friends.
I was living at the Alhecama Center in downtown Santa Barbara at the time, and Virginia was hanging out with the brilliant Brioni — expert glassblower and eccentric man-about-town, who aptly and lovingly referred to her as “mother” as in “Mother Nature incarnate.”
As our lives spilled into each other’s, a feeling of abundance seemed to follow us wherever we went. Together, we baked and sold cookies at Empty Bowls, started a weekly chili club that lasted for years, shopped for fabric and sewed for hours on end, and, more than once, I cried on her shoulder or slept on her couch.
We shared a fierce loyalty to our big brothers and our families. We baked cakes for her daughter Nina’s wedding, made lemonade for my brother John’s wedding, played for hours with her son Joe’s two boys. We shared holidays with her parents as extended family.
As a huge fan of the County of Santa Barbara’s free mulch program, Virginia would order a truckload to be dropped at my house, every year. She would then arrive with a basket full of goodies to share — “after we did our chores” spreading the mulch around — protecting my garden and nurturing my soul.
I looked forward to her call each year when she saw the first wisteria bloom, for then we would drive around Santa Barbara marveling at their splendor. Once we even drove down south to Sierra Madre to see the biggest wisteria plant in the known world.
We were there for each other through thick and thin — she hosted my bachelorette party and gathered rose petals for my wedding. I comforted her when her mother passed away, and then she stood by me when my husband died unexpectedly. I did the same when just a few weeks later, her brother Jer slipped on over to the alternate reality as well.
Virginia’s legacy completes a trio of powerful, creative, visionary, amazing Santa Barbara women whom we can thank for preserving the very nature of nature itself — Pearl Chase, Ganna Walska, Virginia Hayes.
When Virginia retired from Lotusland last year, her colleague Bob Craig lauded her contribution in the garden’s spring 2017 newsletter: “Lotusland’s international recognition is to some degree the result of Virginia’s work.” When she first applied for a job as the water gardener there in 1992, Steve Timbrook, then the director, realized she was overqualified and hired her instead as the associate curator: “It took very little time for me to realize what a great addition she was to Lotusland’s horticultural staff.”
Virginia was elemental to Lotusland’s docent program. She helped develop curricula and plan courses, and she trained every docent from 1992 to her retirement in 2017. Her encyclopedic knowledge was daunting, and many docent trainees wondered how could they ever do justice to the garden as Virginia did. In her always calm, reassuring way, she would simply advise, “Let the garden speak for itself.”
Virginia was the “go-to” person to show the garden to influential visitors. Martha Stewart was charmed to such a degree that Lotusland was featured on the cover of her magazine. Anne Dewey, who worked with Virginia for 25 years, recalled a visit by the royal family of Qatar, requested to be a 45-minute tour. When Virginia returned with them three hours later, the entire group was laughing, asking endless questions and impressed to the degree that they made a generous donation.
Although our dear Virginia slipped out of our lives to swirl around the eternal garden, and while we will miss her presence here on terra firma, her smile, her laughter, and her generosity will be with us forever.
A friend once said, “Virginia is magnificent, like a galleon in full sail.” We’d say she was more like the entire armada.
— Charlene Huston