A Not-So-Secret Garden
by Martha Jackson
It was like running into an old friend at a class reunion. Except for Delia Scott '02, this old friend was a tree.
Scott came upon a Japanese cornel dogwood (Cornus officinalis) covered in tiny pale green buds while walking in The Arboretum (more officially known as the University of Kentucky Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Arboretum Park).
In a few days, this tree will really burst out, Scott said, looking happy at the thought.
It's been three years since Scott tended these gardens, but she still smiles when she walks its familiar paths. It's really good hands-on experience and teaches you things that you cannot get from a book or sitting in a classroom, she said. You get on your hands and knees, get dirty.
The Arboretum has been a key component in Scott's horticultural education. She worked there both before and after she graduated.
In the fall, she will enter graduate school at UK to study organic and sustainable production systems.
Under the College's administrative umbrella since late 2001, The Arboretum is for enjoyment as well as education. Last year more than 100,000 visits were made to it.
In less than 20 years, it has become an outdoor lab for students like Scott, the state's botanical garden, a magnet for tourists both foreign and domestic, a mecca for gardeners who want to learn more, and a flourishing testament to the rich and verdant Kentucky that used to be (and could be again).
Now You See It
The Arboretum is 100 acres on the southern edge of the UK campus off Alumni Drive. Around its perimeter is the Walk Across Kentucky, a two-mile trail that is being developed to simulate Kentucky's seven geophysical regions with native trees, plants, and prairie grasses. The walk connects to 16 acres of woods with a half-mile walking loop.
In the middle of The Arboretum is the Dorotha Oatts Visitor Center. It is named for UK alum Dorotha Smith Oatts '46, '50 (who graduated from what is now the College's School of Human Environmental Sciences (HES) and who was named to the HES hall of fame in 2002). Oatts, a devoted Lexington gardener who was for a number of years supervisor of home economics education for the Kentucky Department of Education, made a $200,000 challenge gift to raise money for the center's construction.
The building of the center was one of three pivotal events occurring between 2000 and 2002.
The paving of the parking lot, the paving of the Walk Across Kentucky, and the visitor center really made a difference in the number of people who visit us, said Marcia Farris, arboretum director.
Fanning out from the centrally located visitor center are various gardens and displays. They include:
- Three demonstrations gardens that are under the dedicated and faithful care of Fayette County's Master Gardeners: a vegetable garden, an herb garden, and a handicapped-accessible garden. This group works closely with Candace Harker, Fayette County extension agent for horticulture.
- Gardens for the nonprofit All-America Selections organization, which tests for and promotes the best varieties of flowers and vegetables grown from seed. One of The Arboretum's All-America gardens shows off winning varieties for the past five years. It is managed by Rick Durham, consumer horticulture specialist. An All-America trial garden (one of 32 across the nation) is under the supervision of Sharon Bale, extension specialist in flower crops. Both Durham and Bale are part of the College's Department of Horticulture.
- A 1-acre rose garden of 1,800 varieties that have been donated,
planted, and are cared for by Tim Phillips.
He is a faculty member in agronomy who is a fescue breeder by training
but who has raised roses since childhood. Fragrant roses populate
one area; climbers, miniatures, and floribunda are in another; and
a third is planted with hybrid teas.
- Plantings of perennials, ground covers, and trees and shrubs.
- A fruit and nut tree collection, which is maintained by John Strang, extension professor in fruit and vegetable crops in the Department of Horticulture.
The Arboretum is more than a pretty face.
Rick Durham, for example, uses it to introduce students to plant identification, and Sharon Bale uses it to teach about herbaceous plants. Dan Potter conducts an organic gardening experiment at The Arboretum that teaches students the rudiments of the scientific method, and Ken Yeargan's general entomology class studies the interaction between plants and insects there. In The Arboretum's wooded area, Lynne Rieske-Kinney's students look at insect-tree interactions. Mary Arthur's forest ecology class annually evaluates methods for controlling invasive species and the impact of those controls on forest processes. (See Seeking
a Kinder, Gentler Landscape.)
Students outside agriculture use The Arboretum as well. Geography classes visit us when they're studying GPS, and art classes take advantage of The Arboretum regularly, said Farris. One art class, after spending the fall of 2004 working there, exhibited its arboretum-inspired work at The Arboretum's visitor center.
High schoolers and students at Lexington Community College, Transylvania University, Morehead University, and Berea College take advantage of The Arboretum as well, Farris said.
Research-primarily plant evaluations-also is carried out at The Arboretum: Durham evaluates ground covers, Bale evaluates perennials and annuals (in addition to the All-America trials), and Bob Anderson, extension professor in horticulture, evaluates bedding plants.
The variety of public education offerings at The Arboretum is mind-boggling. A hefty serving of programming for children is scheduled in the summer. The events calendar annually includes the ever-popular Developing Your Green Thumb series and has included winter tree walks, a workshop on building willow furniture, plant exchanges in the spring and fall, and a workshop on perennials. That's just for starters.
Anchoring the annual calendar are an Arbor Day celebration in April (this year it was followed by a fund-raising gala); Shakespeare in the Park in the summer; and Trees, Trails, & Creatures in September, a fall festival of sorts that gives children (and kids at heart) a worm's eye view of, well, worms and other garden creatures.
A Community Endeavor
For The Arboretum, help has come from everywhere-from the University, the College, and city/county government to be sure, but also from state government, private business, civic clubs, and foundations, from individuals who adopt a plot and care for it, and from the Friends of The Arboretum, now nearly 700 members strong, who have unflagging zeal for this green space, always advocating its needs and raising money to help move it forward.
Dewayne Ingram, chair of the College's Department of Horticulture, said he is most proud of the cooperative relationships that have brought it to this point and made The Arboretum unique.
It is becoming a meeting place, a gathering place for those who have a shared vision. It is a venue for teaching and learning, he said.
How It Grew
1982-The idea for The Arboretum is hatched by UK biology faculty who want a field laboratory that would display the state's ecosystems.
1986-The University joins with Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government to develop The Arboretum, and together they hire a design firm.
1987-Collection begins of seeds, cuttings, and plants from across Kentucky to represent state's geophysical regions. This genetic material goes to the College's North Farm for nurturing into plants.
1988-1991-A preliminary master plan is developed, official groundbreaking occurs, and the first trees and annual flowers and vegetables are planted.
1992-Friends of The Arboretum organize.
1993-1994-Some 1,200 native trees and shrubs are transplanted at The Arboretum from North Farm. Construction begins on the path for the Walk Across Kentucky.
1997-Mary Witt, retired UK extension professor in horticulture, becomes The Arboretum's first director on an interim, part-time basis.
1998-Original rose garden established; Walk Across Kentucky opens.
1999-Marcia Farris becomes The Arboretum's first full-time director.
2000-Construction begins on the visitor center; Walk Across Kentucky is paved.
2001-Arboretum moves administratively to College of Agriculture.
2002-Dorotha Smith Oatts Visitor Center opens.
Seeking a Kinder, Gentler Landscape
On the second Saturday of every month, a hardy band of volunteers goes to work at The Arboretum before some folks amble out of bed.
They toil in the 16 acres of woodlands with a mission: to search and destroy invasives-those non-native plants that have a tendency to take over when they get a toehold.
For years, volunteers have held periodic workdays to battle invasives.
When Jim Lempke came on board three years ago as curator of natural ecosystems, the workdays became a monthly event.
All kinds of people come out for them, including Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, retirees, and high school and college students such as Marian Cothran's biology students at Lexington Community College. One of Cothran's students was so taken by the work that he is now majoring in landscape architecture at UK.
Destroying the invasives is only the first step. The second is allowing what's there to come back, Lempke said. Sometimes, the tiniest ancient Kentucky flower or fern may appear when an invasive plant is removed, and such discoveries are cause for jubilation as volunteers and staff discover them and then nurse them to flourish and spread. These workers also keep out a vigilant eye for invasives that might resurface or pop up somewhere else.
Kentucky's rich natural tapestry of 250 years ago would stagger the mind, and it is that richness that Lempke and those who work with him want to preserve and build upon, not only for the plants, but for the native insects and animals that a restored landscape would draw back to it.
We're losing a lot of species, Lempke said, adding that the result will be a world less interesting, diverse, beautiful for our children and grandchildren.
Rather than changing Kentucky to become like New York, or France, or England, Lempke said, we should really try to see what made the Bluegrass special.
We need to take care of the homeplace.