A horticulturist transforms the long-neglected grounds of a former Galveston orphanage
It’s great if you love your job. And it’s even better if you love where you live. Consider Mitzy Mills-Barringer incredibly lucky — she has both.
Mills-Barringer is the resident horticulturist at The Bryan Museum in Galveston, and she lives on the majestic property, 1315 21st St. It’s an all-day, every-day task tending to the 1¼-acre property, a jewel in Galveston’s historic district.
The manicured grounds at The Bryan Museum are lush and feature a butterfly garden; a Texas wildflower section; a gazebo laced with star jasmine; a scattering of edibles and colorful flowers everywhere; and stately trees anchoring the full-city block lot.
These are mostly new additions to the property, which long served as the Galveston Orphans Home, which was rebuilt two years after the 1900 Storm.
It ceased being an orphanage in 1984 when various agencies merged to become The Children’s Center, a child welfare organization.
Businessman Ross Dinyari bought the building in 1987 and used it as a private residence, naming it “Tavilleh.”
But in 2013, Houston oilman and renowned Texas historian J.P. Bryan Jr. acquired the property to house his vast collection of documents, artifacts and works of fine art exemplifying the history of Texas and the Southwest. He opened the museum in June 2015.
When Bryan bought the property, the plot was overgrown with oleanders, weeds and camphor trees. While crews renovated the interior of the building, landscaper James Mansfield and Mills-Barringer got to work on the outside.
They tackled the job in two sections. The first step was controlling those 30-foot-high oleanders and other flora in front of the building. It took months to clear away all the remains. Later — much later — they attacked the mess behind the building, which was a chaotic clutter of debris and an adjacent building that had to be demolished.
“Mitzy’s work in our garden has been truly transformative,” Bryan said. “She brought beauty and order to grounds suffering from years of neglect and chaos. It is her attention to all the details of the garden that has bestowed it with a warm and appealing countenance. She has a portfolio of horticultural expertise joined with the unique ability to combine plants in a fashionable art form that is soft to the eye and refreshing to the soul.”
Using rounded beds softened the sharp edges of the building’s exterior, Bryan said. An extensive sprinkler system had to be installed because it was impractical to hand water the entire grounds.
“I could not water with a hose all these areas,” she said. “No way.”
Every day is weeding day. As she strolls around the property, followed by her faithful dog Tezy — a 3-year-old rescue — Mills-Barringer stops in front of a small garden and pulls some stray weeds in between the plants.
“I keep my hands dirty and green,” she said. “Every day is weed pulling, or moving something from one place to another.”
Mills-Barringer moved to the island from Houston, where she had lived for 13 years when Bryan hired her. She is from Alabama, and worked for decades as a hortitherapist — a field where trained horticulturists work with patients in gardens and gardening activities to achieve specific therapeutic treatment goals. She worked for the Alabama Department of Mental Health at large campuses in Birmingham and then Tuscaloosa with disabled clients, assisting in both mental and physical therapy in the garden.
Her love for gardening started early in her life. Both sets of grandparents were farmers and she marveled over putting something in the ground, growing it and then eating it, she said. She attended college, majoring in horticulture and freelanced as a landscape designer for several years while working for the state.
Each morning at The Bryan Museum, she writes her agenda for the day on a small board. She meets with her team of two other groundskeepers and they plan their tasks. She doesn’t pressure them to hurry in their work, unless there’s a big event coming up at the museum. Then, it’s all hands on deck.
“What she and her able staff have demonstrated is what can be created when the ideas of perfection meet with efforts of those seeking perfection,” Bryan said. “Hers is a masterful performance in a job that changes and grows in its demand each and every day.”
Her job entails replacing wilting plants, rotating seasonal flowers and ensuring aggressive hedges and bushes remain in control. She carefully makes her selections based on the Gulf Coast climate, but more importantly and specifically, she chooses plants for precise locations on the property based on the season and sun exposure.
“We like boxwoods, but when I put them in a sunny location, they don’t do well,” she said. “So, I am always moving things around and putting them where they will do better.”
To brighten the back area of the museum around the new glass-enclosed conservatory, where many weddings and special events are held, she chose purple petunias to fill eight large terracotta containers around the patio. Small palms are also potted, giving the space a tropical feel, while evergreen selections camouflage the perimeter fences. The colorful pansies that lined the paths all winter and spring soon will be replaced, she said. Pansies don’t do well in the heat.
“We have lots of ‘wait and see’ plants — lots of surprises, too,” she said, referring to unhappy plants that need more sun, more water, more space or less heat. “That’s why we are constantly moving things around.”
She also is steward of the century-old oaks and decades-old palms on the grounds.
“These trees are still standing, despite years of storms, hurricanes and abuse,” she said. “They really are beautiful.”