Phillip Watson, QVC's pretty face, plants himself in West Chester spreading charm and know-how

View of Long Island Sound from the parterre designed by Watson for his "marquee client," fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, at his home in Greenwich, Conn. PHILLIP WATSON
View of Long Island Sound from the parterre designed by Watson for his "marquee client," fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, at his home in Greenwich, Conn. PHILLIP WATSON
Posted: June 02, 2012

His real name is Henri Phillips Watson 3d, but he’s better known as Phillip Watson. Perhaps you’ve seen him on TV. For the last 17 years, he’s been on QVC, selling Cottage Farms roses, daylilies, heirloom tomatoes, peonies, and other crowd pleasers, which lately would include the sensational dwarf sterile butterfly bushes — dwarf so you can squeeze them into a tiny garden and sterile so they don’t seed all over the place.

Watson is a pleaser of crowds himself, packing the lecture hall at the 2012 Philadelphia International Flower Show, where he had the mostly middle-aged ladies laughing at his opening line that the weeklong event "doesn’t have that musty smell like your grandmother’s house anymore."

Oooh! How very naughty!

Watson charms them all with his sweet Southern accent and punchy pronouncements. "These coneflowers look like Peter Max opened a lab to work on them," he says of the bright orange and pink Echinaceas on the screen, and this, too, goes over great because just about everyone in the room is old enough to remember the 1960s pop artist’s psychedelic imagery.

So is Watson, who turns 60 in August. But for a very few creases around the eyes, you’d probably never guess his age. The guy is still a looker, and let’s be honest, this certainly doesn’t hurt in the workplace, especially when one is smart and ambitious. Many in the audience are whispering things like "Oh my God, he’s so cute," because even from the back of the hall, you can make out the details of his elegant figure:

Tall, golden tan, fat surgically removed from the eyelids, beach-blond hair that gets a little assist now and then, boyish bangs, super-white teeth (thanks to a friend who showed him how to bleach at home), and buff. If he misses his daily one-hour workout, he goes to the gym twice the next day!

"I’m not going to get fat. You have to look good for TV, and oh yeah! It makes me feel good to look good," says Watson, who moved six months ago from Atlanta to West Chester to be closer to QVC. He’s now just six minutes away, door to door. Meanwhile, he’s been gutting the new house and starting from scratch on the garden, which is already taking shape on his 1? acres.

In his new place, he’s also closer to Greenwich, Conn., where he designs gardens on properties ranging from 10 to 20 acres. Ten to 20 acres in Greenwich is shorthand for gazillionaire, and judging from the turrets and waterfront views in Pleasure Gardens, Watson’s 2010 self-published book, he works with a virtual blank check.

On the topic of annuals, for example, he explains, "My clients spend more on annuals than most people spend on entire landscaping jobs." Those clients include fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger and another whose parterre, or clipped hedges planted in a pattern, appeared in the 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives.

Before Greenwich, Watson’s biggest break was meeting his "mentor and tormentor" — the exacting Rosemary Verey, one of the most influential garden designers and authors of the ’80s and ’90s. Her clients included Elton John, Oscar de la Renta, and the Prince of Wales.

Watson met Verey in 1986 at a design conference in the south of France, having hatched a plan in advance to get her attention and not let go. "When she arrived, I latched onto her," he admits, adding, "I didn’t misrepresent myself. She could learn nothing from me. She liked me."

The two eventually became friends, and Verey, who died in 2001, proved an invaluable muse and promoter. One of her best pieces of advice: "Design a garden as if you’re looking through the lens of a camera. There should be something interesting in every view."

Here’s something interesting: Watson’s view of himself. "I’m a people person and a total loner at the same time, a nervous wreck, very high-strung ... I can’t stand not being the best and I cannot tolerate criticism," he says pleasantly.

Watson loves — loves — his "very, very wealthy clients, who are all so involved in raising money for charity," and plant-lovers, whatever their net worth. "It all comes back to the garden," he says. "Those people are interesting to me."

Among them is horticulturist Charles Cresson of Swarthmore, whom Watson met in the 1980s at a perennial plant conference at Swarthmore College and considers "a true garden geek" who got him interested in rare plants. Cresson modestly insists Watson has always had an eye for the unusual.

"I was just the spark," Cresson says.

Watson gave Cresson something unusual, too — a native perennial sunflower that he found in a ditch in Mississippi. It grows 15 feet tall, with a clump of stems and clusters of yellow daisies at the top, instead of one big head.

"It’s quite fabulous," Cresson says, remembering Watson similarly, in that "he’s always sort of attracted attention. He has a sparkle in his eye that is a little bit magnetic."

Watson also gave Cresson a rose that thrives in his garden today — ‘Perle d’Or,’ a 19th-century heirloom variety that grew in the garden of Watson’s Great-Aunt Julia back home in Lexington, Miss. Virginia Chew, Watson’s paternal grandmother, was from Philadelphia, and he’s not sure how the family ended up in the Deep South in the late 1800s, but the Watsons still own a farm there that covers "something like thousands of acres."

Watson enjoys reminiscing about a childhood spent raising chickens, calves, and lambs, and wandering freely across a landscape that, for a boy who loved plants, revealed treasure at every turn.

Lexington is known as the home of the 4-H movement — and, apparently, Watson, who’s listed on the town’s website as a "contemporary notable."

He left home for Mississippi State University, wanting to study horticulture but unable to imagine it as a career. A part-time job in the MSU greenhouses convinced him otherwise, and after graduation, helped along by a stroke of serendipity here and a contact there, his career took off.

He watered office plants in Atlanta. He designed window boxes on Fire Island. He installed rooftop gardens in Manhattan. He bought some greenhouses in Fredericksburg, Va., filled them with unusual plants, and started designing gardens. And then, in 1994, after he was written up in Southern Accents magazine, two readers from Greenwich called — and he was in the door. Doors, actually, because those jobs led to others.

Which brings to mind something else on Watson’s resumé — the year (1979) he spent working as a model in New York. He says the experience taught him that good looks might get your foot in the door, "but it won’t keep you in the room." So it goes with designing gardens. You may get a job through a contact, but only brains and talent will keep the referrals coming.

Watson suffers no shortage of those. Drew Becher, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, notes that he’s both "a good plantsman as well as showman, which is a hard mix to find."

And you better believe the man has contacts. "He’s been everywhere in our field. He’s met everyone," says Barbara King of Valley Forge Flowers, who has sold on QVC herself and is introducing Watson to "plant-lovers" in the region. "I might be talking about somebody I met at a garden club in Dallas and, oh, he knows her, too, been to her house for dinner!

“I’m, like, how old are you? You’ve fit a whole lot into one short life. He looks like he’s 40."

For now, Watson’s loving Philadelphia’s gardens and gardeners and enjoying the moderate climate that allows us to, as Watson puts it, "grow the best of the best, most of the Northern things and Southern things, too. We can grow peonies and rhododendrons!" he says.

Watson especially likes designing with clipped hedges and parterres, which have a distinctive "garden room" quality that is so very Verey. Inspiration for the parterres also comes from Versailles, where a Greenwich client/friend took him for some lavish parties when he turned 50.

For his 60th, who knows? Someone, surely, will think of something fabulous.

Contact Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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