In the early 1940s, Stephanie Cohen moved with her parents to Camden, New Jersey, so her father could take a job.
People in the city were planting “victory gardens,” as instructed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who encouraged Americans to try to feed themselves and their neighbors as much as possible. This would help a government trying to take care of its military overseas that was fighting World War II as well as a population at home.
Cohen’s parents participated like the good Americans they were, but about two years in, their daughter had a question.
“Why aren’t we growing flowers?” she asked.
Her folks bought her a petunia, a geranium and a marigold. She took care of all three.
“And I liked it,” Cohen added.
And she still does.
The 85-year-old Collegeville resident and Tiferet Bet Israel member in Blue Bell is known in horticultural circles as “the perennial diva.” She not only builds gardens but talks about how to build them, too.
Cohen spent more than two decades as a horticulture professor at Temple University, according to a 2018 Nursery Management profile; she designed a four-year program in the practice at Temple Ambler; and she held jobs “hybridizing orchids for John DuPont” (yes, that John DuPont) and working in management at Waterloo Gardens on the Main Line.
Cohen also appeared on PBS and QVC as the “perennial diva” and became a best-selling author with titles like “The Perennial Garden’s Design Primer” and “The Nonstop Garden.” She remains an editor emeritus at Fine Gardening, a lifestyle magazine that she contributed to for three decades.
“From a very early age, I liked to take care of things. Maybe they were colorful. Or maybe it was because the bees and the butterflies were attracted to them. Who knows?” Cohen said. “But there was something about them.”
Cohen discovered her passion at a young age. But she did not pursue it until much later. Before she went to college, her mother asked her, “Do you want to be a nurse, a secretary or a teacher?” which were three common options for women at the time. Cohen did not have an answer, but she ultimately chose teaching. She thought she would like it more than the other two.
By the late ‘60s, she was a high school English teacher with a husband, Dr. Richard Cohen, and three young kids, Abby, Douglas and Rachel. As a mother, Cohen had little time to cultivate a garden outside her home. But she did get “caught up in the 1960s house plants craze,” as that 2018 Nursery Management article explained it.
The plant enthusiast put hundreds of them around her house. It was not a big house, either. Cohen had to put a few plants on top of a television and, on two separate occasions, she burned out the TV while watering them. Dr. Cohen told her that maybe she should take her hobby outside.
So, Cohen went back to school to study horticulture, earning a degree from Temple Ambler and a master’s from Arcadia University in Glenside. She also helped out at the Temple greenhouse. After graduating, she landed her teaching job at Temple and went on to mentor hundreds of “public garden directors, garden center owners and heads of arboretums,” according to the Nursery Management article.
“As Jews, we were told that we were the caretakers. That we’re supposed to be taking care of our communities and the soil and everything else,” Cohen said. “It fits together with what you learn as a good Jewish person.”
Later in life, when their kids were older, the Cohens moved to a Collegeville property that “did not have one plant,” Richard Cohen said. Now it has a garden featured in magazines and 50-80 house plants inside.
“She just loves plants and growing things,” Dr. Cohen said.
Today, Cohen describes herself as semi-retired. But you never really retire from a passion, so she’s still taking calls from friends and family members about how to grow gardens and care for specific plants. She gives her advice free of charge.
And at a moment when there’s a general, digital-age desire to reconnect with the natural world, she’s giving it to Jewish Exponent readers, too. First, according to Cohen, you must buy a gardening book and read it, too. Then go to a gardening center and buy a beginner plant, like a succulent, which you only need to water once or twice a week. The sunlight will take it from there.
“And then you just keep going,” Cohen said. “You buy yourself another book.” ■