Stick it in the ground and it will grow!

What I love about Boquete during the rainy season is that you can stick almost anything in the ground and it will grow . . . and grow . . . and grow. It’s a great time to start plants. A lady in town has some huge red hibiscus. Not the kind of Caribbean red hibiscus most of you have seen, but huge ones. I asked her if I could trim her bushes and she agreed. Now I will just stick the cutting in the ground. In a month they will look like dead sticks. In another month they will be sprouting leaves. Next year they will be blooming beautifully!

My love of gardening started when I was in junior high. We would go to a farm for pumpkins and Indian corn in the fall and the guy who owned the farm had beautiful gardens, and he would give me starts, so I made my own little garden with white birch fences and all. I was very proud each year when I would plant castor beans and in a summer they would grow 10 feet tall. Now I know castor beans contain one of the most deadly poisons on earth. Interestingly we use them a lot in Panama. Because they grow so fast, they make great shade cover for young coffee trees and when they are no longer needed are easy to cut down and they rot fast putting nutrients back into the soil.

But my passion for gardening really got going because of this woman.

Doris Duke, or “Miss Duke” as we always referred to her, was called the “million dollar baby” because she was heir to the Duke tobacco fortune. She had lavish homes in Beverly Hills, Honolulu, Manhattan, Newport and Hillsborough Township, New Jersey. Every morning riding the bus to school we went through Duke Farms and picked up kids whose parents worked on the Duke estate. When I was a junior in high school Duke decided to renovate the lavish greenhouses her father had built to raise fresh oranges in New Jersey and she established the Duke Gardens Foundation. I got hired on, initially to trim bushes and dig trenches, but eventually I moved into the coveted indoor gardens. I always liked it when Miss Duke was coming home to Hillsborough. We got to go to the orchid ranges and pull out the most spectacular specimens, then take them to her house to get it all decorated for her when she came.

Early on I was assigned responsibility for two indoor gardens, the desert garden and the Chinese garden. An architect designed the pathways and flow of the desert garden, but I planted everything, and for the most part, although it has grown up over these many years, a lot of the stuff is still in the same places. And Miss Duke took a personal interest in everything about these gardens. She would drive up in her battered old Buick with her two yapping mongrel dogs – this on an estate that had spectacular, pure bred German Shepherds and Dobermans as security dogs. But Miss Duke would show up in jeans and get down on the ground in the dirt beside me planting cactus and succulents. Her dogs were always peeing on “my” plants or digging up stuff so whenever she wasn’t looking I would kick the dogs. It was an interesting contrast when she would stop by before leaving for a night on the town in New York . . . in her classic chauffeured Rolls (there were rumours about her and her chauffeur, her and her butler as well as her and Imelda Marcos, one of her buddies) dressed to the hilt in diamonds and sable and looking every inch the heiress.

My favorite garden was the Chinese garden and it still looks very much the same as when I took care of it.

When she died she left very specific instructions regarding the Gardens and the future of the Foundation. Now the Foundation directors have decided that these magnificent gardens are “perpetuating the Duke family history of personal passions and conspicuous consumption.” They have decided that “the [time of] display gardens is past. They consume an inordinate share of financial and staff resources, they would require a very expensive modernization, and they no longer reflect the vision of Duke Farm’s future.” So now they are going to be more “relevant.” The gardens closed in May of this year and are being ripped apart. There are groups petitioning the State of New Jersey to save this botanical treasure.

Doris Duke is probably cursing from her grave . . . with good reason. Duke Gardens are a treasure which should be preserved.

Doris Duke was always in or on the edge of scandal. Some of the juicy details emerged in a NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLE dated April 1996 noted . . .

A tentative settlement was announced yesterday that would end the war over Doris Duke’s $1.2 billion estate and pay Bernard Lafferty, her high-spending, ponytailed butler, millions of dollars to give up his role in overseeing her fortune.

Mr. Lafferty, whom Miss Duke wrote into her will less than a year before she died, has agreed to resign as co-executor of the estate and relinquish a powerful seat on the board of the charitable foundation that would control Miss Duke’s wealth. But while he would lose the power and prestige of those roles, Mr. Lafferty — who is 46, an admitted alcoholic and barely literate — would not give up any money. He would be paid his executor’s fee of $4.5 million, plus $500,000 a year for the rest of his life, according to the proposed settlement submitted yesterday in Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan.

If the settlement is approved by the court — which is by no means certain — it would end more than two years of litigation over the estate of the late tobacco heiress, who left most of her fortune to charity. The will has been challenged by one of Miss Duke’s doctors, former employees and others, and the bitter battle has led to charges and countercharges, including an affidavit contending that Mr. Lafferty and a doctor hastened Miss Duke’s death with a drug overdose.

After Miss Duke died in 1993 at the age of 80, Mr. Lafferty moved into her mansions and traveled around in her chauffeured Cadillac and her private Boeing 737 at estate expense. His “profligate life style” was criticized last year by Surrogate Eve M. Preminger, who dismissed him from managing Miss Duke’s estate — a decision that was later overturned.

If I had only known . . . and I was just planting cactus and fending off overtures from Miss Duke’s garden architect to join him in his hot tub in Big Sur.

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