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Quick Takes With: Alex Bates

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Quick Takes With: Alex Bates

June 16, 2024

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We’ve been fans of Bloomist, an online retailer for sustainably and responsibly made goods for the home and garden, since it launched in 2018, so we’re thrilled to have cofounder Alex Bates answer our Quick Takes questionnaire. With  30-plus years of experience in product design and brand strategy—including creative director stints at Martha Stewart, and West Elm, where, she says, “I found my passion for working with artisans and small makers”—Alex is a master of sourcing products that have a human touch and timeless appeal. But it’s her obsession with gardening that we’re delving into today. From April to December, the Manhattanite decamps for her little cottage on Fire Island, where she works from her front porch—and takes many breaks to putter around in the garden.

Below, Alex, who’s also the founder of Flint & Kent, a design consultancy that prioritizes social impact, shares what it’s like to grow plants in wetland conditions and why she’s accepting of certain invasive species.

Photography by Alex Bates, unless noted.

Above: Alex in her happy place. She and her husband bought their 1,200-square-foot home in the Village of Saltaire, Fire Island, nearly 30 years ago. Photograph by Troy House.

Your first garden memory:

Standing in the garden with my mother and little sister, surrounded by pansies. I must have been around 5 and thought they looked so happy. Both my parents and grandmothers were avid gardeners. Growing up, our Saturday chores included garden work. I loved trimming the hedges, trying to get them as straight as possible.

Garden-related book you return to time and again:

Above: Alex treasures this gardening book that’s been passed down to her from her father.

I inherited many of my parent’s and grandparent’s garden books, but my favorite is my father’s copy of a 1936 edition of Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening. A gift from my grandmother to him and passed on to me when we bought our house on Fire Island and started my own garden adventures. It has served as a steady, trusted companion and I love thinking about the thread that connects one generation to the next.

Instagram account that inspires you:

@Gracealexanderflowers—stunning inspiration, plus great seeds; it transports you to Somerset. Also @ours_flower and @fridakim_london.

Describe in three words your garden aesthetic.

Layered greens, wild, and structured.

Plant that makes you swoon:

Above: Tall, elegant stalks of Verbena bonariensis.

Happy pendulous plants that at first glance look delicate and yet are strong and resilient: Verbena bonariensis, Sanguisorba ‘Drama Queen’, or tall ornamental grasses like salt-tolerant Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’.

Heirloom roses—those with heady scents and blousy petals, shifting colors as they fade. And wild, dainty rambling multiflora roses, though considered invasive, are such a joy when they explode all over the island in May and early June and good for the birds, providing seeds and the thickets for shelter. There’s a large one outside my kitchen window that feels like an aviary.

Plant that makes you want to run the other way:

Anything red, my least favorite color, particularly bright red salvia prevalent in suburban gardens. Red in the garden is just too loud and jarring to my senses. There was a large red rambling rose on the side of the house when we moved in; let’s just say it is no longer there.

Favorite go-to plant:

Above: Climbing roses thrive in Alex’s garden.

Climbing roses and ramblers, ‘Cécile Brünner’ and ‘New Dawn’, which are the steady survivors when all else fails.

Hardest gardening lesson you’ve learned:

Not being realistic about gardening in wetland conditions and thinking plants will survive if I plant them high enough. But even some of the hardiest can’t stand up to salt-water floods. I have had to let go of my love for boxwood hedges, which were wiped out in Hurricane Sandy. I try to focus on native shrubs and hardy plants. My vegetable beds are very high now as well.

Unpopular gardening opinion:

Above: The Rosa multiflora on her property provides food and shelter for the birds.

I have embraced the invasive species that the birds help spread. Planting on a barrier island with climate change evident in the rising waters and frequent, bigger storms presents many challenges, to say the least. The season starts with yellow flag irises surrounding the house to the multiflora rose explosion in May and finally capped off with a profusion of purple loosestrife in July to August.

Gardening or design trend that needs to go:

A gardening practice that has to cease is the use of toxic pesticides that are killing us with cancer-causing chemicals seeping into our water and killing the pollinators, birds—destroying the food chain. It’s unbelievable that the US has not banned Roundup yet. There are so many old-school, inexpensive, non-chemical options readily available.

Old wives’ tale gardening trick that actually works:

Always plant lavender by your doors to ward off evil spirits (this has been a pretty happy little house for 30 years so who’s going to say it doesn’t work?) Coffee grinds to keep critters away.

Favorite gardening hack:

Growing marigolds with tomatoes to helps enrich the soil and deter pests; cardboard to suppress weeds when laying in new gardens.

Favorite way to bring the outdoors in.

Above: Found natural treasures on Alex’s fireplace mantel.

Cuttings from whatever is blooming outside. love the drama of the long arching canes of multiflora roses, so dramatic in our little cottage, or the tall stems of drying fennel and grasses, mixed with bits of nature, fallen birds nests or antlers shed from our local deer. Then there are the rocks, they are everywhere; collected from beach walks and travels, it’s a problem.

Every garden needs a…

A bit of white to contrast against the shades of layered greens, from variegated leaves to sweet autumn clematis, hydrangea ‘Limelight’. And a little bit of chocolate for contrast—I love the stark contrast against greens—chocolate cosmos, black cornflowers, hollyhocks ‘Blackknight’, coral bells.

Lots of flowers planted amongst the vegetables for the pollinators—particularly African blue basil—they love the blue flowers when it goes to seed and it smells so great when you brush up against it.

Favorite hardscaping material:

Above: River rocks line a planting border.

River rocks. Living with wetland conditions, we wanted a way to elevate our beds in a rambling, natural manner.

Tool you can’t live without:

Lindsey Taylor introduced me to my favorite Japanese hori hori knife a few years ago—so many uses. Sneerboer Narrow Perennial Spade is a recent purchase and a game-changer.

Go-to gardening outfit:

Vintage French work top I bought from Marston House years ago at a garden show pop-up, great pockets and faded fatigues. Gardenheir clogs on dry days and BOGS boots for the wet weather.

Favorite nursery, plant shop, or seed company:

Seeds from Grace Alexander Flowers, special unexpected plants from Issima, topiaries from the charming Ken Selody of Atlock Farm. Also love Planting Justice for their mission and offerings.

On your wishlist:

A trip to Daylesford in the Cotswolds and a spin through a few of the storied English gardens

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

Jardin du Plantes in Paris. And the transporting experience of Tokyo’s Nezu Museum garden + teahouse. I always welcome green refuge on busy work trips.

The REAL reason you garden:

It keeps me sane and nurtures my soul; providing much needed quiet and reflective time away from screens with my hands in the dirt.

Thanks so much, Alex! Follow her on Instagram @mybloomist.

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