June 6, 2011

A tale of two arboreta… and a botanic garden

Betty and I had the opportunity over the Memorial Day weekend to visit three very different horticultural collections.  Here are some thoughts.
Two years ago, we heard Claire Sawyers, the Director of the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, speak about landscape design and her book, ‘The Authentic Garden’.  Hearing her enthusiasm and wanting to see how it was implemented, we put a visit to the Scott Arboretum on our ‘wish list’ of places to explore.  Last week, Betty had to be at a convention in Washington, D.C.  I offered to tag along and, rather than doing the sensible thing of flying the 450 miles from Boston, we elected to drive, in part to fulfill that desire to see the arboretum, which is outside Philadelphia.

The Scott Arboretum and the inner
campus of Swarthmore College
are one and the same.
A 'pocket garden' within the
Scott Arboretum
In researching the visit, I kept running into an obstacle… where exactly on the campus was the arboretum?  The Scott Arboretum’s headquarters were clearly identified as was parking for it, but we couldn’t find it on a campus map.  We put it down to an idiosyncratic web site.  When we arrived at Swarthmore on a blazingly hot afternoon, we walked into the headquarters, asked for a map, and discovered to our amazement that the arboretum encompasses the whole of the ‘inner’ campus – 300 acres.  It is both the individual gardens – two dozen of them – and the incorporation of that ‘whole’ into the fabric of the campus.  It is that integration that is the genius of the design.

Some of the Scott Arboretum gardens are extensive and free-standing (the rose garden, for example).  Others are pocket gardens that occupy a specific space in front of a building or between two structures.  No two are alike or serve the same purpose.  Rather, each is specific to its site – shade, a narrow space, a need to collect water, etc. 

The Rose Garden within the Scott
Arboretum is one of the few
'free-standing' gardens
The arboretum was formed in 1929; Ms. Sawyers has been its director and guiding light since 1990.  The Swarthmore website lists no budget but shows an arboretum staff of 23, though that includes motor pool assistants and interns.  It is clear that a large group of volunteers (called the ‘Scott Associates’) is also involved.  I mention those numbers because the arboretum is maintained exquisitely, marked intelligently and is in a constant state of renewal. 

I was captivated by the arboretum and, even on an afternoon when the temperature and humidity were both above 90 and I had driven more than six hours, I was reluctant to leave.  It was an afternoon of having my notion of what constitutes an ‘arboretum’ challenged and re-defined.  Ms. Sawyers has done a magnificent job.

* * * * *

Friday morning, we continued south and made the two-hour drive down to Washington, D.C. On our way into the city, stopped at the National Arboretum. 

Here are some facts from its website:  The National Arboretum covers some 446 acres, has an annual budget of $12.2 million, a staff of 76 augmented by 140 volunteers and interns, and supported by the American Nursery and Landscape Association, Friends of the National Arboretum, Garden Club of America, Herb Society of America, National Bonsai Foundation, National Capital Area Garden Clubs, Inc., National Capital Orchid Society, National Garden Clubs, Inc., Society of American Florists, and Woman's National Farm & Garden Association.

A container garden at the gift shop;
one of the few areas that showed
continuing care or upkeep.
The arboretum occupies a superb site, an area of high ground in the northeast part of the city.  There are areas of forests and valleys; rolling hills punctuated with beautiful vistas of the city.  The site, chosen in 1927, provides a green oasis in a large metropolitan area.

That, unfortunately, is the extent of the nice things I can say about the National Arboretum.  Here is the rest of it: the gardens are uninspired, outdated and very poorly maintained.  Weeds overrun beds and plant identification is spotty at best.  The grounds crew mows around trees, but no one is pruning or shaping those trees and so they are formless blobs.  The azalea gardens, neglected for decades, were about to be ripped out until a public outcry prevented their destruction.  However, despite the outcry, the neglect continues.  In fact, I saw only one major re-building project underway at the arboretum: a renovation of the administration building. 

This is a horticultural site with a serious case of misplaced priorities.  Compare the size of the staff with that of the similarly sized Scott Arboretum and the magnitude of the lost opportunity becomes clear. 

* * * * *

We originally set aside Saturday morning to see several sites along the Mall, including the U.S. Botanic Garden adjacent to the Capitol.  As with our other destinations, I had downloaded a map and other visitor information.  The basic map showed a Conservatory and a fountain and, based on those two elements, I envisioned a site that might encompass about an acre.  I had also met Holly Shimizu at an awards function and was impressed by her energy and enthusiasm.

Bartholdi Park with the USBG
Conservatory in the background.
Every square foot is intensely planted.
Double-click on the image to
see the intensity of the site.
Let me make this clear: even if I had done a better job of researching my visit, I wasn’t prepared for what I found.  I was expecting something tourist-oriented and filled with platitudes.  I was expecting a garden that dealt with the familiar.  In short, I was expecting the lowest common denominator of urban parks.

What I found was a garden and a conservatory that rank with the best I have ever seen:  stunning design and execution, and curated better than any garden I have ever visited – and that includes Kew and NYBG. 

These vertical container gardens
are a visual delight.
The site, including Bartholdi Park, encompasses about six acres – the conservatory and fountain were significantly larger than anything I could have envisioned – and every square foot is used. 

I lived in the Washington area for eight years in the 1990s and have no recollection of the Bartholdi fountain, which means it was likely surrounded by grass and so disappeared into the streetscape.  No longer.  It is intensely planted in a series of gardens that, taken individually, could be replicated by a homeowner.  It is stuffed full of ideas ready to be copied.

Double-click on the sign.
The National Garden, built with $11 million of ‘private donations’, lies to the west of the Conservatory and incorporates a series of regional gardens, a butterfly garden and a rose garden.  It was here, I think, that I began to grasp the idea that the garden was intended to educate as much as please.  I was walking along a path when I spotted one of about a dozen green signs marked on, by hand, with white chalk.  The sign was next to a rather badly abused palmetto.  But the sign (reproduced at right) gave me an explanation of why this palmetto was important.  Someone had taken the time to walk the garden and choose a few things worth explaining.  I have no doubt but that were I to go back this week, those signs would adorn a different set of plants.

When there's something special
to see, like an unusual plant in
bloom, there is special signage.
In the Conservatory, those signs are joined by ‘look here’ markers indicating something interesting in bloom or otherwise out of the ordinary.  There’s also a cell phone tour for those who want in-depth information about specific plants.  In short, it’s an extraordinary place.

The USBG web site shows a staff of 66, though there is no breakdown of how many of those are horticulturalists and how many are administrative people.  It is under the joint auspices of the Library of Congress and the Architect of the Capital.  No budget is given.

*  *  *  *  *

The USBG packs an enormous
amount of horticulture into a
small footprint.  Double-click
on the chart to see full size.
Inevitably, two questions have to be asked.  The first is, why is the U.S. Botanic Garden a stunning success while the National Arboretum is no better than a county park?  Part of the answer is geography: the U.S. Botanic Garden sits at the foot of the Capitol.  It ‘has’ to be a showcase (yet, for many decades it was apparently a mess).  Because of its visibility, it gets attention.  Part of the answer likely has to do with Ms. Shimizu.  She is an articulate horticulturalist and probably a fund raiser par excellence.  The National Arboretum is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and, maybe, that’s the root problem.  But the National Arboretum also lists a ‘Who’s Who’ of affiliate organizations that, at least in theory, ought to be able to deliver both horticultural excellence and access to external funding.  That, in turn, takes me back to Swarthmore’s Scott Arboretum, which achieves order-of-magnitude better results on a comparably sized facility with less than a third of the staff. 

The overarching question is whether Washington D.C. needs both the U.S. Botanic Garden and the National Arboretum.  Betty and I debated this question on the drive home.  Her opinion is an energetic ‘yes’.  Mine is much more qualified and, after a week’s reflection, comes down on the side of ‘no’. 

There are multiple arboreta and botanical gardens within an hour’s drive of Washington. They look better and are not investing their resources in renovating headquarters buildings.  They are focused on education and their collections.  In Northeast Washington, I saw nothing that inspired and certainly no evidence of leadership or of mission.  When you’re that far off the mark, perhaps it’s time to pack it in.

1 comment:

  1. "mine is much more qualified" ranks up there with "hosta lakeshore cupcake" as one of your funnier lines =)