A horticultural tradition with roots that go back to 1894, Como’s beloved mosaiculture is back in season
Marjorie McNeely Conservatory assistant gardener Marie Day was wrapping up her work watering the Gates Ajar installation recently when a nearby pedestrian caught her eye to convey a message.
“She didn’t speak English, but she pointed to Gates Ajar and she started clapping,” Day recalls. “She got the point across.”
Located just east of Lexington Parkway, Gates Ajar earns applause every year from visitors who appreciate the fresh new ways Como’s horticulturists have interpreted this historic horticultural attraction. Created back in 1894, when building topiary-like sculptures from plant material was the height of European flower fashion, Gates Ajar has been a fixture at Como for more than 100 years. With a name inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1851 poem “The Golden Legend,” Gates Ajar is essentially an elaborate upright flower bed that requires more than 100 gardener hours to bring into bloom.
Day, who designed this year’s installation, says that work starts with bringing new soil into the structure, a “mudding” process similar to putting up drywall. Next, a team of four gardeners and five interns began planting this year’s sun and moon motif out of nearly 10,000 Conservatory-grown annual plants—a mix of colorful alternanthera and echeveria, a fast-growing succulent.
Once fully installed, Gates Ajar requires continued and painstaking care, from hand-pulling weeds and trimming overgrowth, to nearly 45 minutes of watering each day. The vertical structure can also be a challenge, says Day. “I’m not very tall, so I have to bring in a step ladder and try not to crush the plant material below me.”
Day says she took her inspiration this year from the more traditional floriculture of the 1940s and 50s, but if she gets a chance to design 2024’s installation, purple would be the dominant color. “Next year is the 40th anniversary of ‘Purple Rain,’” she says. “I’m pretty sure that would be a big crowd-pleaser.”