Visitors to the Glenstone Museum in Potomac marvel at Jeff Koons’ famous “Split-Rocker,” a massive sculpture filled with flowers. But how many stop to wonder about the gardening work needed to keep it so colorful? We asked Chris Ryan, the guy who’s been doing foliage for nine years, to explain what that entails.
When Koons created “Split-Rocker” in 2000, he specified the flowers and hues he preferred, and a group of annuals that bloom in a single growing season are chosen each year to replicate Koons’ original selection. . “Split-Rocker” is divided into numbered zones so that the eyes of the sculpture are in the right place and the color palette that Koons desires can be maintained year after year. It also has an internal computer-controlled drip irrigation system that can determine if each area needs more or less water.
Ryan, who holds a master’s degree in plant science, is in charge of maintaining the artwork throughout the year. Most of the time, he climbs into a pod to inspect it and take care of it. During the summer, “Split-Rocker” requires daily fertilizing, manicuring and pest control. As with all of Glenstone’s 300 acres of landscaping, its care is entirely organic.
‘Split-Rocker’ typically blooms from mid-May to mid-October, and Ryan’s team plants its planting over about three days during the first or second week of May. It takes at least 24,000 plants to fill the sculpture; they come in trays of 72 and come from a nursery in northern Maryland. The different varieties (including petunias, marigolds, and zinnias) are assigned to the appropriate section of the sculpture, essentially a floral version of paint-by-numbers.
In full bloom, the sculpture is quite a sight – a favorite of art lovers and Instagrammers alike. But his annual death is as important, in a way, as his colorful life – a vivid reminder of transience and mortality. The plants finish as winter approaches, and then the process begins again. Ryan begins by pulling out all the seedlings. Then, he will take care, among other things, of recharging the soils and repairing the structure. It’s the cycle of sculpture and, if you want to get a bit corny, of life: another year, a new planting, a new flowering.
This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of The Washingtonian.