Some kids collect coins or Pokemon cards. Garden designer Wambui Ippolito collected passport stamps as a child. Her mother was a diplomat, so the family traveled often, living in their native Kenya, Costa Rica, and throughout Europe. But she always loved returning to her family farm in Kenya’s Rift Valley. “I was surrounded by what felt like a never-ending landscape: the sky was so wide, the stars so abundant, and animals roamed freely. I felt so connected there.”
After her daughter was born, she left her career as an international development and democracy consultant and started volunteering at the Snug Harbor Botanical Garden. It was there that she found her bliss. She graduated from the New York Botanical Garden’s prestigious School of Professional Horticulture, worked on Martha Stewart’s and David Letterman’s estates, and has been designing gardens ever since. Her colorful, floriferous garden for the 2021 Philadelphia Flower Show captured the hearts of the judges, earning Best in Show.
Ippolito’s peripatetic upbringing gives her a unique perspective on landscape design. She draws upon her travels for inspiration, working with a broad palette of flora. “I try to tap into the zeitgeist of a place. I observe the lushness of plants, listen to the music, see how people talk, interact, and maneuver through the natural world,” she says. “Landscape is not just thing to be looked at, but a place to live.” Here, she shares some of her garden favorites.
Where do you garden?
I create and install gardens for clients in New York and Pennsylvania, a combination of rooftop gardens and larger estates. We recently moved into a new home in New York City, where I grow plants in bulk from seed and store planters, tools, rocks and gardening equipment to use in my work. I love to buy new interesting seeds and start them outside in my yard. I grow a lot of annuals and biennials, like foxglove, delphinium, poppies, sweet peas, and cosmos. Happy flowers. Usually, my husband and our eight-year-old daughter hang out with me while I’m planting; she’ll be running around, and he’ll often be sleeping on the grass.
Favorite seed source?
Jelitto Perennial Seeds online is always a great source. I also buy a lot of seeds from international sellers, some from my home country Kenya, others from Chiltern Seeds in the UK. During my travels, I also like to collect from the wild.
Garden tool you can’t live without?
Life without a Kusakichi Nejiri Scraper is meaningless. I love all Japanese gardening tools and find that this scraper is something I always go back to. It is so easy to use: light, sharp and the best tool for weeding. I have given many away as gifts, and will give my mum one for Christmas as she is also a very avid gardener. It’s a no-frills tool that just gets the job done.
Pruners of choice?
I use compact Okatsune 101 bypass pruners. They are small, lightweight, sharp and perfect for me because they fit in my small hand. I use them for small stems and vines, and also to prune dead blooms and collect seed pods. They are just fantastic.
Most dog-eared gardening book?
The Royal Horticultural Society’s Encyclopedia of Plants & Flowers is a wonderful reference and plant catalogue that I always turn to when I begin imagining a new garden. It has a plant selector where I find recommendations for various sites, and it enables me to add something new to a garden. It is indispensable. It’s quite a heavy tome, however, and though I love that it holds everything I need, I wish it came in an app! Another book that has my fingerprints all over it is Le Jardin dHermannshof, which transports me into a beautiful dreamland. Cassian Schmidt, whom I met when I was a student, is the director of Hermannshof Garden in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, and has created and maintained what I consider to be the standard of ornamental gardening. The book makes me feel like I’m there. I draw inspiration from the feeling I get when I look at photographs of the wonderful plantings.
I like citrus trees and have been eyeing a Citrus australasica, the Australian finger lime. Citrus trees are so nice to have inside the house by a sunny window or outside in the summer months. And of course, if you live in a tropical climate, you can grow as many as you like outside. Citrus trees are evergreen and inside or out, so you don’t have to worry about a shower of leaves dropping when the weather turns cold.
I like earth colors and a clean simple design. Etsy is a great place to look for original pots and planters for the house. For my work, Campania International is my go-to. Every season I await their new trade catalogue to order through my supplier. I prefer terracotta or stone planters—nothing glazed, because I like it when planters age and get mossy. In my dreams, I own many planters from MC Pots in Marrakech and Guy Wolff. In Kenya where I was born, we also have a wonderful traditional of handmade coil pottery. I used to do it when I was a child and wish I had the time to do it here too.
Pet peeve when it comes to gardening?
I don’t like to see a planting palette repeated or copied. As a designer, I challenge myself to try not to repeat the same style or plant selection. I like originality and am constantly “one-upping” myself. It keeps my work fresh. My motto is “keep moving into the unknown.” I don’t like excess or frivolity.
Must-wear garden gear?
A good foldable, breathable woven straw hat is the best thing ever—something that you can rinse and dry in the sun, and one that travels well. I wear a Scala Levanzo Big Brim Raffia Hat that has a leather chin cord. It’s pricier than most garden hats, but it’s the best I’ve found and it’s lasted. I’ve had it for years.
The Vachellia (formerly Acacia) genus is my favorite. They are beautiful trees that grow in East Africa and I love them because they mean ‘home’ for me. They have beautiful, wonderfully-scented little button-like flowers that bees love and the best honey comes from them. Also, weaver birds build their elaborate nests in the trees and the bird-song every morning is divine. At home in Nairobi, we have a tall, old Vachellia drepanolobium that has been in the garden probably since before I was born.
Best gardening advice you’ve been given?
I learned a lot from watching how my mum gardened. She never really had a ‘plan’ in the beginning and was just interested in filling empty spots in the garden with whatever plants she bought during our early Saturday morning nursery trips. Consequently, her garden beds always looked very organic as they matured. Her home in Nairobi has a garden that is almost 40 years old, and it is majestic because it feels and looks natural. The plants look like they grew there by Nature’s design. I try to follow this manner of design by placing plants where I feel they need to go, as opposed to creating and sticking to a grid-like planting scheme. A garden must feel natural, like it just happened,
and so I try to design by instinct. If I have an ethos, that’s it.
Favorite garden refuge?
My family’s home garden in Nairobi. The garden is part of the old-growth forest belt that once existed in that part of suburbia, so we are lucky to have many old trees there. It is a wonderful refuge from the din of the city. It’s situated down in the valley at the bottom of a steep hill, hidden from everything. It’s also where my dog Noni is buried and where many happy memories are.
For similar stories, see:
- 14 Questions with Melissa Lowrie, Author of ‘Terrain: The House Plant Book’
- Tools of the Trade: Japanese Garden Tools