Every time I visit a public garden, I’m impressed. The displays are usually spectacular, nearly weed free, and looking as fresh as they day they were planted. Did you ever wonder how this gardening miracle was achieved?
I never really thought about it until recent visits to the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Biltmore Estate where my group received ‘behind the scenes’ tours. At the Chicago Botanic Garden, we saw the quarter mile long area where plants are grown and cared for in as ideal conditions as possible. Plants that like morning sun are placed on the East side, while plants preferring strong sun are on the West. Some plants grow in houses that maintain humidity at a certain level while others live in arid conditions. A number of plants are grown outside once the weather is warm enough, while others remain indoors in tightly controlled environments.
Special mum displays for fall are started months earlier and trained along forms. Seasonal back-up plants are ready and waiting to replace any like specimens that aren’t performing up to snuff. I would love to have the ability to swap out plants in my garden like that. Wouldn’t it be great to replace that crispy Astilbe that suffered through a drought with a perfectly fresh replacement? Of course, most homeowners don’t have the time or the budget to do the kind of work performed by hard-working public garden staff members. Knowing how much effort and money went into creating such special places, made me appreciate them even more.
I was also inspired by the plant trial gardens and breeding programs. Often public gardens have plant curators who seek out unusual plant material from around the world. They breed plants that can be used successfully in home gardens. Chicagoland Boxwood is an example of this; the Chicago Botanic Garden introduced this cultivar as a cold hardy boxwood that maintains its green color in the frigid Illinois winters.
At the Biltmore Estate we learned how the staff is honoring this historic garden. When plants need to be replaced, such as a diseased Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) hedge, the staff references the original design created by Frederick Law Olmsted. Since Olmsted’s design recommended American Holly (Ilex opaca), that is the plant the staff will use as a new, native and disease resistant hedge. I think most public gardens do their best to honor the spaces we visit and make them welcoming to all.
I respect and admire the work our public garden staffs do and hope you’ll think about the talented gardeners that keep them looking so good for our visits. And don’t hesitate to use some public garden strategies in your own landscape. Replace plants that aren’t performing well with fresh specimens that will grow better in the space. Consider how visitors see your garden and do your best to make it welcoming to all. Most of all, enjoy your garden and all those public (and private) spaces you visit.