When you hear “public garden” in the American Public Garden Association, think very broadly. The APGA includes numerous arboreta, zoos, cemeteries, university gardens, retirement communities and many city/county green spaces among its 600 member gardens. Staff members include 9,000 people. According to Casey Sclar, APGA executive director, the public garden movement has never been better. The location of gardens in the U.S. follow the general population trends. Then again, Sclar said, “Having a public garden with plant collections that is a relevant and wonderful gathering space for the community could be viewed as what sets a more progressive community apart.”
Keys to successful public gardens include their relevance, innovation, leadership, community buy-in and collaboration. The APGA has 20 professional sections that continue to strive for better garden practices. From an equipment operation perspective, “better” can encompass snow removal and innovative ways to plant and transfer plant material, ensuring the highest standards of horticulture while not harming valuable plant material, etc. Sclar stated, “I’ve seen everything from electrically operated mowers to the largest trommel screens and grinders involved in compost programs. Loaders, backhoes, lifts, you name it.”
Old City Cemetery Museum and Arboretum
Old City Cemetery Museum and Arboretum, one of APGA’s successful gardens, is housed in and owned by Lynchburg, Va., and is the oldest cemetery still in use in the state. Over the years it has grown to become not only a place of burial and memorial, but gardens with an arboretum. In addition, the 27 acres contain the museum with five buildings to help tell the story of the area and its people. The Southern Memorial Association is a nonprofit with a staff of three who do all of the programs, tours and activities there. The grounds are filled with hundreds of varieties of native and heirloom plants, including the largest public collection of antique roses in the state of Virginia as seen through the website’s roster, www.gravegarden.org/roses.
There are over 250 varieties of antique roses, or “old garden roses,” planted throughout the area.” Old garden roses” are a group of roses existing before 1967, when the first Hybrid Tea Rose was introduced. The original antique rose collection included 60 varieties and was planted in 1986 along the 800-foot remains of the cemetery’s old 1860s brick boundary wall. Those roses came from all over the country, and other ones have been added since.
Karen Bracco is the public relations and visitor services manager. She and the director, Ted Delaney, plan events throughout the year, some directly related to raising funds for continuation of the programs at the cemetery, museum and arboretum. Since 21 years ago, Karen shared that the SMA has been taking cuttings from its collection of old roses and “stock” that it has cultivate nearby and rooting them. On Mother’s Day weekend, SMA sells these plants to the public.
“We do ‘Rose Walks’ that weekend also,” says Karen, “We plan specific activities here every year to promote the horticulture, as an example: bee programs — we have hives that are maintained by the local beekeepers — tree walks, pond programs and many varied bird programs.”
There are 130 volunteers who help at Old City Cemetery in some way. Karen said they volunteer because it is peaceful and fun, and they can focus on a specific job such as gardening, repairing tombstones, working in the museum, etc. The SMA also tracks visitors to the gardens, museum and arboretum. In 2005 there were 20,977 visitors, and in 2015 there were 33,821. Each year there has been an increase in visitors.
The Crosby Arboretum in Mississippi is a very small public garden, designed to operate with minimal maintenance. Its success is due to the fact that its development is based on a very meticulously designed, award-winning master plan. The arboretum opened to the public in 1986, with planning for the public garden beginning after the death of L.O. Crosby Jr. in December 1978. In 2016, the Crosby Arboretum earned the Horticulture Magazine Award for Garden Excellence Recipients.
The arboretum became part of Mississippi State University in 1997. While operated by the extension service, it is funded through the university. Annual fundraising appeals to arboretum members allow it to continue to build site improvements, such as constructing new trails or interpretive signage. It has built a number of educational exhibits through grant funding. Since the arboretum is owned by the university, an annual operating budget enables regular maintenance of the 3-mile trail system, buildings and the Pinecote Pavilion, a designated landmark by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Maintenance can sometimes still be difficult with a limited staff, and Patricia R. Drackett, director and assistant extension professor of landscape architecture, said, “We use prescribed fire to manage our 20-acre savanna exhibit and have a narrow window each winter for the suitable environmental conditions.”
Arboretum staff in the late 1990s called it the “first fully realized ecologically designed arboretum in the United States.” In 1991 Crosby Arboretum was described by the American Society of Landscape Architects as the “premier native plant conservatory in the Southeast” when it conferred on the arboretum its 1991 Honor Award, the highest national award given in its field, for the arboretum’s site master plan.
Drackett said, “Our public garden preserves, protects and displays regional flora, that of the Pearl River Drainage Basin. Our programs and events celebrate the natural world and provide education on identifying, using and cultivating native plants. The garden includes several pitcher plant bogs. The fire-adapted Gulf Coast perennials found in this wet pine savanna landscape off er visitors a dazzling color show that changes with the seasons.”
Explore the American Public Garden Association website, publicgardens.org, to find more jewels in the U.S.’s public landscape. Also learn how to create a public garden in your geographic area to benefit your residents with year-round beauty.