Memories of Frank Wolfe

January 5, 2021

by Peter van Berkum

New Hampshire lost one of its true horticulturists on Monday, November 16, 2020. Frank Wolfe died in his sleep surrounded by his family. Frank started and ran Lake Street Garden Center in Salem until his son Tim took it over about 10 years ago. I was lucky enough to work for Frank as his grower for five years before Leslie and I started our nursery.

Frank was a mentor to me. He taught me that growing was as much art as science. He helped me understand how vast the plant world was. He helped me see how fascinating and exciting growing plants could be, and he encouraged us to pursue our dreams to start a nursery. In fact, after the initial job interview in 1984 when he offered me a job, he said that from what I’d said and by my resume he assumed we wanted to start a business of our own. He told me that if I went to work for him, he’d help us out, and did he ever! Not only by teaching me all he could about plants, but with ideas for plant markets, giving me contacts, helping us check out potential nursery sites, and just general encouragement. And later when we were setting up the nursery in Deerfield, he was over with his brush helping paint our new house.

I had already grown a few perennials at previous growing jobs, and I already had an interest in wildflowers. But Frank was way into perennials. He grew thousands of varieties, and I was put in charge of them. I had a lot to learn, and he had a lot to teach, a great combination. It was a five-year immersion in perennials, and I loved it. But perhaps the most interesting part of the job was forcing for flower shows. In those days the Boston Flower show was a big deal, and there was also a show at the Manchester Armory. Lake Street Garden Center was one of the primary places that did forcing for these shows. We forced for many landscapers and garden clubs, which means getting thousands of different plants to bloom on exactly the right day, judging day. We would have hundreds of different species, from big trees to dwarf daffodils. We had five greenhouses, all set at different temperatures. My job was to have the plants in the correct greenhouse for the right length of time, moving them from house to house to speed them up or slow them down. All this under Frank’s watchful eye; he just had a sense for it. Every week or so the organization that we were forcing the plants for would stop by to see the progress. Frank and I would lead them around to see their plants, scattered around depending on their temperature schedules. Frank was always squeezing the flower buds knowingly. Finally one time after a customer left I asked him what he was doing. He answered that you can tell a little by how soft the bud was, but with that twinkle in his eyes, he said he mostly did it because it impresses everyone, makes them think you really know what you are doing. Typical Frank!

My first year at Lake Street on a really busy spring day, I was working with Frank’s son Tim, who was 14 at the time. There were people everywhere. Lake Street has always been a true horticultural destination. Suddenly I heard this really loud, enthusiastic and bad singing rising above the din of all the plant shoppers. I asked Tim what on earth that was, and he looked at me sheepishly and said ”that’s my stupid father.” When things got really busy, Frank liked to sing loud songs about his two dogs, Anthony and Fido. Most of the clients were used to it and paid it no mind.

My other favorite memory was how he got rid of late customers. I think the nursery was open until 7 then. And as with any nursery in the spring, we were working long hours. He’d never kick people out at 7, he’d let them hang around a bit, but after half an hour or so, he’d go out and tell them that we were closed and it was dinner time. A few minutes later he’d go out and tell them again. If they still didn’t leave, he’d go into the shop where the irrigation controls were and turn on the overhead sprinklers. And he’d spy out the window laughing as the folks rushed to their cars.

Frank retired about ten years ago. Tim is doing a fantastic job with Lake Street now, modernizing it, but keeping its distinctive flavor and horticultural excellence. Frank spent a lot of his time after retirement at his camp in Northwood, not too far from our nursery. We got to see him once in awhile, going out for dinner or just hanging out on his porch by the lake. He always had his dogs around him. And he always had plants. His camp, with its tiny yard, became his own horticultural oasis, and when he ran out of space he lined his dock with containers. You can’t take the nurseryman out of someone like that.

I am grateful for the education that Frank gave us. And I am grateful for the friendship that we shared for 37 years. Frank, I hope there is a garden big enough for you wherever you are, and that there are some folks that want to learn about plants like Leslie and I did. We were lucky people to have known you.

Continue Reading