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  • Writer's pictureLucy Dinsmore

The First Public Gardens Day for Horticultural Professionals

On one of the hottest days of the year, Women in Horticulture hosted the first Public Gardens Day for Horticultural Professionals. This event was created as an alternative to National Public Garden Week, which occurs in mid-May, when "public gardens emphasize their importance and impact as community resources and catalysts for change and resilience by encouraging the general public to visit, engage, donate, and/or volunteer." While that's great for the general public, us busy professionals rarely get time to visit gardens then. So we created our own celebratory day when we can actually linger and lounge in gardens during a less frantic time of year. We selected three very different gardens to visit, all within 4 miles of the next, and all free for horticulture professionals: Haverford College Arboretum, Stoneleigh, and Chanticleer. Here's how the day went.

Starting at 7am to beat the heat, a dozen people came out to see this campus arboretum. Horticulturists Carol Wagner and Mike Startup guided us on our morning tour, sharing stories of how the campus has grown and changed over time. The first stop on our tour was the mechanic's shop and equipment garage. That's when we learned that the 217-acre campus is cared for by only 5 grounds people, 4 horticulturists, and 1 mechanic. That's a lean crew. Especially considering the care they provide their very old and young trees alike, garden areas, and planter displays. If you want to see some huge trees, they're here.

A burr oak planted in the 1830's still stands outside one of the first buildings on campus. Deciduous trees were often planted on the south side of campus buildings to provide summer shade and allow for heat transfer in winter. The ghost of the State Champion scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) stood nearby, but sadly was removed this year after a recent tree risk assessment deemed it too hazardous for a campus setting. Nearly 100 feet tall with an even wider spread, it filled an impressive space, which a younger tree is growing into, now without competition. The rigorous tree assessment forced the college to come up with a solution to plant two trees for every one removed. Because of the sheer number they removed last year, they have over 400 yet to plant. While that's a big number, there's still a lot of canopy overhead, and we only had to walk a few paces to reach shade. The campus boasts 13 other trees listed on the State Champion Tree Site.

Mike Startup led us through 4-season plantings around the new athletic building, where he shared a tragedy of plant design. While standing in an area surrounded by Raydon's Favorite aster, he told us that light pollution from the campus lights prevents bud-set, and therefore prevents any flowering. Can you imagine it? A plant that comes alive in fall with purple flowers swarming with pollinators when the students are back on campus, remains quiet and green instead. This is just one of the various problems the horticulturists live with, while others they actively address.

Watering the many planters surrounding campus buildings can be time consuming, but they use self-watering pots to help them save resources. These composite pots were good looking, too. Trickier problems, like managing the spotted lantern fly are also on their radar. They've been using sticky traps made of reverse-duct tape to trap the nymphs. These traps are just sticky enough to catch daddy long legs and millipedes, but thankfully not sticky enough to trap birds. While lamenting the future of the lantern fly, we were encouraged by some beneficial green lacewing larvae on a nearby hickory.

Under the canopy of the 1840 Penn Treaty Elm's descendent - a seedling from 1977

We ended our tour under the huge canopy of a Penn Treaty elm descendent. This descendent's family tree looked like this: it was a seedling from a scion from a shoot from the original Penn Treaty Elm. Got that? The one we stood under was planted here in 1977, when its parent succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease. As acorns continue to fall, seedlings grow and get distributed to eager students.

Experimentation. That's what Stoneleigh is all about. Horticulturists Laura Cruz and Samantha Nestory were our tour guides for the midday portion of our 3-garden tour. They shared with us their unique position of being able to experiment and design with native plants, and push the boundaries of what a public garden can look like in this era. They're experimenting with formal applications with native plants, like using standards, weeping forms, and espaliers. They're experimenting with their mowing patterns, leaving large swaths of turf in "the rough," and trialing turf grass alternatives. They're experimenting with 'aggressive' groundcovers to minimize weeding and herbicide use. Viola striata (pale violet) for example is a profuse self-seeding plant that borders on being weedy in more formalized plantings, and yet they're encouraging it in some areas. Irrigation is all also minimal; the only irrigated area is the new bog garden.

There are some very unique "bones" of the garden, and we learned that two notable design firms were responsible for the layout and structures within the garden. Pentecost & Vitale and the Olmsted Brothers. New York landscape architecture firm Pentecost & Vitale designed the circle garden, pergola, and circle drive. The Olmsted Brothers later revised the landscape with a less formal plan. With over 80 client properties along the Main Line, The Olmsted Brothers had the longest involvement withe the site that is now Stoneleigh. Their designs of the Great Lawn, meadow and rockery are still in place. More on Stoneleigh's architectural and land preservation can be found here.

In addition to these architectural features, Stoneleigh has eight trees listed on the State Champion Tree Site. We admired many of them, which are ranked as follows in Pennsylvania:

#2 Japanese false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera)

#2 Moss Japanese false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Squarrosa')

#2 Turkey oak (Quercus cerris)

#3 Southern catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides)

#5 Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha)

#5 Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)

#6 Cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata)

#10 River birch (Betula nigra)

Horticulturists Sam Nestory and Laura Cruz begin our tour under the 6th largest cucumber magnolia in the state!

By the age and size of these trees, it's obvious that this garden has had a past life. It's been in private hands until three years ago, when the garden was donated to Natural Lands. Since 2016, the gardeners have planted over 20,000 trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. And they're still planting nearly everyday. Laura and Sam expressed such energy and enthusiasm for the place and their jobs, and we all came away in awe of their efforts.

We were treated here to a tour of some of the behind-the-scenes areas by Public Programs Manager, Erin McKeon Dougherty. First cooling us down with popsicles, she then led us through the main house, where she briefed us on the historic timeline. Then, she led us along the service paths used by the staff, pointing out how even they are gardened to look their best, and they did. The surface was permeable paving with a strip of liriope down the middle. We dipped into the wood and metal shops, where Chanticleer horticulturists fabricate their creations for the garden, like chairs, benches, and handrails, and plant list "boxes." The boxes that house each garden area's plant lists are creatively interpreted, like the one resembling a paper wasp nest.

We managed to stay in the shade for most of the tour, except for the Serpentine, where different agricultural crops are showcased in a beautiful snake-like design. The area had just been planted with Carolina Gold Rice. If you know your history, there's a lot to be said here (about slavery, the South, and agriculture). Without going too deep, it was America's primary rice crop until the Civil war, and hasn't been readily available since. As a plantation crop, it relied on the hand labor of slaves. Yet with the end of slavery, coupled with the introduction of new rice strains and harvesting equipment, rice production changed and Carolina Gold was forgotten. When we visited, the crop was only about a foot tall, but its golden stalks should reach about 5 feet by the fall.

Our tour ended around Chanticleer's newest water feature, a gravity-fed fountain emerging from a simple basin. The heat of the day was oppressive, but standing around that fountain, under the drooping, fragrant racemes of a Clethra barbinervis was the perfect end to an incredibly rich and informative day.

The new gravity-fed fountain under a Clethra barbinervis cooled us down after a long day of touring gardens.

Thank you to all the participating organizations and people that made this wonderful day possible!

Haverford College Arboretum: Mike Startup & Carol Wagner

Stoneleigh: Laura Cruz & Sam Nestory

Chanticleer: Erin McKeon Dougherty

Women in Hort: Kate Galer

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