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Me and Barbie

Barbie, THE Barbie turns 50 this month. It’s hard to believe considering her still fantastic looks and non-stop go go go attitude. Poor Midge fell apart so early. And Ken. Well, Ken was always second banana to the girls anyway (no pun intended).

Barbie and I go way back. We’re practically the same age. I can still remember looking at the Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog (when it was still Sears and Roebuck) and two things always caught my eye: Barbie and GI Joe. I wanted them both desperately but Santa was always short on the come-through. Once past the Santa stage I still wanted them both, I admit.  With Barbie it frequently was those glorious evening dresses. Tons of silk and satin and fur. What boy wouldn’t have been mesmerized?

Barbie Feet

Man feet

But what is the secret to that never aging body, everything firm and still in place? Believe it or not it’s gardening. Yes folks, gardening. Sure she’s all glamor and pearls but she’s also all mulching and pruning.

On a recent spring day Barbie invited me to her posh estate, Pink Glitter Farms, for a look at her incredible gardens.  Now I can’t say where Pink Glitter Farms is located but let’s just say this, very exclusive. Far more exclusive than the location of the life-sized Jonathon Adler decorated Malibu Dream House Mattel has commissioned. Pink Glitter Farms offers an escape for the Queen of Fashiondom at a time when she is busier than ever what with the opening of her first flagship store in China. When I arrived Barbie and her friends were already hard at work doing spring chores. This day was dedicated to cutting back woody plants.

I found Barbie working on Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pink Diamond’ (For this crowd it seems the first sunny warm weekend of spring means beach attire. But it’s Barbie so it must be right.)

Barbie pruning

She’s well aware all Hydrangea paniculata cultivars bloom on new wood so they can be cut back every year and you still get flowers. Plants will put on one to three feet of new growth in a single season. Here’s before and after shots of her work.



By cutting back to a framework of only the largest stems she gets fewer blooms but they are much larger. You will see evidence of this on the ‘Limelight’ plants at the IMA’s  40th Street entrance. These shrubs can also be trained into small trees, or standards, like the ‘Kyushu’ along the main drive as you approach the museum.

Sometimes a plant simply takes up too much space or gets too tall as was the case for Barbie’s Corylus maxima ‘Purpurea or purple giant filbert. She likes the size but within limits as there is only so much room in the gardens. This purple-leaved monster needs some control. Here Christie (with Barbie cheering her on!) is helping out by removing some of the large older stems.


These tended to lean outward so were not only tall but taking up space on the perimeter as well. This type of rejuvenation is common for shrubs with colored twigs like dogwoods and willows as the younger growth has the best color.  Two fine examples are Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ and Salix alba ‘Britzensis’. Generally a third or more of the shrub is removed annually.

The large Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Velvet’ (smokebush) at Pink Glitter Farms gets cut back to the trunk every year. Barbie doesn’t care if she gets many flowers on this large shrub or small tree. She’s growing it for the incredible purple leaves it has all summer. The cultivar ‘Velvet Cloak ‘ is very similar. She also has the equally beautiful chartreuse Cotinus ‘Golden Spirit’. Barbie’s friend Rainbow Prince Ken just loves working on the woodies. Notice Rainbow Prince Ken uses pruners to remove the small growth while GI Joe uses a saw to remove larger stems.



Barbie knows that if a stem needs loppers for removal you probably should use a saw. It does less damage to the surrounding tissues. The picture on the left is the plant before pruning, the one on the right after.



You don’t have to let smokebush develop this large a trunk before starting the annual cutting back. The fellas give each other a big hug for a job well done.


With all the hard work going on, I wondered if Barbie and the gang ever had fun? So I asked her what they do after the gardening chores are finished. Without missing a beat she said, “Flamingo races!” And before I could ask for an explanation they were off!


Who won? Barbie of course!


Barbie always wins. Just ask Midge.

Now folks, enjoy two very different interpretations of the perfect 11½ inch doll.

Filed under: Horticulture

13 Responses to “Me and Barbie”

  • avatar
    Carol Henderson Says:

    Hi Irvin, I was googling for information about Harrison Flint and stumbled on your blog. Cool!

    re Barbie– if you watch this video
    there is a nice segment on Rainforest Barbie about 8 minutes in.

  • avatar
    Chris Turner Says:

    Classic Irvin Etienne! I am forwarding this post widely.

  • avatar
    Gayle Says:

    I hope I look and feel as good as Barbie when I turn 50. II’m asking William to buy me pruners on my next birthday.

  • avatar
    C.L. Says:

    I love this post.

    I had the original Barbie and Ken 50 years ago – for me, it was all about creating clothes and houses for them: I begged wooden crates from the supermarket, carpet samples from flooring stores, wall paper books from paint stores, fabric, beads and anything else from my mother and the neighbors. It was the drive to MAKE STUFF, expressed through B & K.

    Now I make gardens, but reading this, I realize that they are lacking Barbie’s glamour. I wonder if I could glue sequins on that Heuchera….

  • avatar
    Martha Says:

    Very good. You are my garden blog entry on this spring Saturday night.
    Loved every bit of it.

  • avatar
    Robin Says:

    I wish my green thumb was as pink as Barbie’s and my…heart… as big as Dolly’s

    hugs and kisses

  • avatar
    Anonymous Says:

    G. (something non-denominational, of course)

    hee hee hee heee

  • avatar
    Despi Says:

    When is IMA going to create the Irvin Etienne fan club? T-shirts, over-sized button to put on our back packs and a signed 8 1/2″ x 11″ glossy. Maybe a limited edition Irvin doll? The world is overdue….

  • avatar
    irvin Says:

    Thanks for all the feedback folks. That Barbie can bring ’em out. Carol, so good to hear from you. I can’t imagine how I popped up in a search for Dr. Flint. Chris, strong praise from the only other person I know who also did NOT understand why The Hee Haw All Jug Band played instruments other than jugs. Gayle, get the matching shoes. CL, absolutely glue those sequins, pink on ‘Midnight Rose, peridot on ‘Caramel’. Martha, glad to join you on a Spring Saturday night, please visit often. Robin, you have a fabulous thumb in any color and you heart is as big as …. Dolly’s. Anonymous, bless you my child. Despi, indeed the world may be overdue but I need complete creative control. It’s all about selling the brand. Am so glad you still read the blog. Thanks for all your help getting me in the blogosphere.

  • avatar

    Hi Irvin – I’m a Barbie fan and gardener plus GWA member from way back — check out my avatar and blog posts here:

  • avatar
    irvin Says:

    Thanks for visiting Kathy. Great job with your vision of Gardening Barbie.

  • avatar

    And I thought you were only a Master Gardener and teacher of the lowly volunteer at the IMA. I believe you need to be on your way to the Great White Way. I see a musical in this. Possibly out selling the Producers.

  • avatar
    irvin Says:

    Thom! Why don’t you ever visit? So very glad you enjoyed the blog. Broadway. Gosh, I don’t know? “Fasten your pruner holster, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.”

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