Get to Know Ryan McCallister, Martha Stewart’s Gardener and Sidekick in 'Martha Knows Best'

He's the curly-headed, blue-eyed gardener who can make jokes with Martha while planting perennials. Let’s find out more about this horticultural hero.

August 11, 2020
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Martha Stewart and her gardener, Ryan McCallister, discuss garden design plans while filming the HGTV show Martha Knows Best.

From: Martha Knows Best

Martha Stewart and her gardener, Ryan McCallister, discuss garden design plans while filming the HGTV show Martha Knows Best.

By Martha’s side throughout each episode of Martha Knows Best is her gardener and friend, Ryan McCallister. The two have the kind of camaraderie that allows for open sarcasm, like in the soil-prep scene of the first episode when Martha sails easily behind a power tiller while having Ryan demonstrate a backbreaking broadfork. Each time he sets the stage for call-in guests — who are more than happy to be talking gardening with him — and then hands the phone to his boss (Martha), there’s a fun moment when I, too, feel like I’m totally overcome at the idea of being handed over to Martha Stewart.

Beyond the obvious rapport, Ryan clearly knows his stuff. And his Instagram feed is like a virtual parade of roses (and lilies and poppies and passionflower ...). Learn more about Ryan, what it’s like being Martha’s personal gardener, and — get ready for it — what color she’s (politely, of course) banned from her landscape.

How did you become Martha’s gardener? What’s your background in gardening and horticulture?

I'm from Southern California, so I've pretty much grown up gardening, learning things from both my dad and grandma when I was young, in addition to much self-experimentation, studying and planting on my own as a teenager. This led me to major in both horticulture and biology (with an emphasis in botany) in college. Since then I have worked professionally with plants in some way — as a plant salesman, buyer, landscape designer, landscape maintenance and finally as Martha's head gardener, a position I’ve had for about 10 years now.

I became her gardener randomly and unplanned. After living in New York City for about a year, I was tired of maintaining small Manhattan yards and rooftops. An acquaintance of mine (who I didn't know worked with Martha) heard me talking about wanting a job change the same week she happened to be looking for a new gardener, so he connected us and I started working for her about a week later.

So, it was meant to be. What are your favorite plants and why?

My favorites definitely change throughout the year, as the seasons progress and different plants come into their own. A few key favorites of mine are poppies (a current favorite the past few years), roses (since I grew up tending a large rose collection), and all manner of fruits and vegetables (because I can eat them!).

Do you have any least favorite plants and why?

Since moving to the Northeast my least favorite is definitely poison ivy! It seems to be all over out here, especially in the wooded areas of the farm, and I'm terribly allergic. In regards to the landscape, I really don't like plants with tons of foliage variegation, be it yellow or white. They usually don't grow as well and can often look sickly in the garden.

What’s the craziest thing Martha’s asked you to grow?

Martha brings home seeds, plants and cuttings to try all the time, which is fun. One time she called me in the kitchen and pulled a bunch of acorns out of her purse. She had picked them up off the ground when she was out walking somewhere and wanted us to try to grow them. A project to say the least, as acorns take many, many decades to grow into mature oak trees.

In the container episode, Martha mentions that she uses pots all of relatively the same color (white, ivory, light gray). What are a few other rules or idiosyncrasies she has about design in her gardens?

Although the property is filled with colorful flowers, Martha likes to focus heavily on the bones of the garden — the trees, the shrubs, the structure, and fill this in with much color and texture provided from foliage and leaves. No big beds of annuals generally (unless it is something specifically meant for cutting). And one of the unwritten rules (with a few exceptions, like roses and poppies) — no red!

Can you tell me a little about Martha’s seed library?

It sounds fancy, but it is just a basement refrigerator that we keep all of the unused seeds and seed packets in. Seeds store much better in a cool, dry environment away from sun and moisture, so the fridge works great. It is primarily vegetables and flowers, and everything is separated by type and category in its own plastic folders and bins.

What about other plant collections — does Martha have a well-known collection of any particular plants?

Most everything on the property is a collection in some way. Martha doesn't like just one of something, and she loves variety. She's not going to just have one peony; she's going to have one of each variety. At the farm we have collections of peonies, evergreens, boxwood and numerous tree varieties.

Martha’s garden designs allow for year-round interest. What’s your favorite season in Martha’s garden and why?

I'd say it is a tie between spring and fall. I like the cooler autumn days and the winding down of things after a busy growing season, though I'm generally not looking forward to the winter cold. And fall is the time to order and plant spring-blooming bulbs, which I always look forward to. Spring is great because it is just an explosion of color, that comes in one wave after the next, everything fighting to take its turn showing off.

Thanks to Ryan for indulging our questions and sharing a little about his background and gardening interests. Be sure to tune into episodes of Martha Knows Best.

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