Explore the Private Plant Collection of the Park and Gardens Director for the Indianapolis Museum of Art
Jonathan Wright collects plants. Lots of plants. (A not-so-surprising hobby, perhaps, for the person in charge of all the greenspaces around the Indianapolis Museum of Art.) So after moving to Indy five years ago, he and his partner, Stuart Alter, were thrilled to discover a late Victorian home near downtown with a rare double lot—a carpet of lawn that today hosts a bounty of flowers and foliage.
"It's a bit wild," Jonathan concedes, "but that's the style I like. I'd rather it be full and lush than too slim." And full it is, starting at the picket fence, where Jonathan trains up English roses, clematis and even thornless blackberry brambles that tempt passing neighbors. On the steps, he curates a gallery of houseplant curiosities. Along the wraparound porch, he weaves hundreds of bulbs with old-time annuals like love-in-a-mist, larkspur and snow daisies.
In back, curvaceous borders grow thick with perennials, edibles and more annuals. Many plants pay tribute to his gardening great-grandmother and his grandfather. There's not a bare spot of soil, and that's by design.
"A lot of people say I break all the rules and plant too densely," Jonathan says, "but part of that is knowing I'm going to edit later with cutting or thinning." He would rather make room by trimming the outer leaves off a sprawling hosta, for example, than see bare spots for the first half of the growing season. Likewise, he lets seed heads linger for interest (and to encourage volunteers that will fill gaps next spring). He knows he'll have to thin a lot—but will also be rewarded with little joys, like stray poppies sprouting in gravel paths.
Jonathan started plant-collecting as a child. He welcomed gifts of magnolias and Japanese primroses from adult gardening friends. By 14, he was a regular at R-P Nurseries, a long-standing, family-run garden center near his hometown in Pennsylvania. He answered so many fellow customers' questions, the owner gave him the staff discount at checkout and offered him a job: "The manager told my mom, 'Your son sold more plants than our staff!'"
Following that prodigious start, Jonathan worked 15 years as a horticulturist, designing bulb meadows and elevated walkways through sloped gardens at Chanticleer, a renowned historic garden near Philadelphia. In 2016, he became director of the gardens and park at what's now called Newfields—a 152-acre campus that includes the Lilly House mansion and Indy's biggest art museum. A year after relocating, he and Stuart found their current home within walking distance of their rental. "It was like hitting the jackpot," says Jonathan.
Following a memorable move—they ferried 30 plant-filled containers, plus a banana tree in a trough, down the street on dollies—Jonathan set to work. He broke the side lot into zones to create a strolling garden with a mowed path, a native pocket prairie and wide borders.
Local artist Kim McNeelan crafted a potting bench. And the couple designed the patio together, anchoring the seating area with an abstract painting by Stuart. They love to host friends for pre-dinner cocktails or evenings around the firepit. But above all, this property is a personal space, where a born collector can pursue his pastime. "It's my passion and refills me," Jonathan says. "It allows me to express my mind, physically garden, let off stress—and most of all, play with plants."