Public Gardens: Indoors and Out

By: Richard G Turner Jr

Richard G Turner Jr is the editor emeritus of Pacific Horticulture. After receiving degrees in architecture and landscape architecture from…

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Volunteer Park Conservatory, Seattle. Author’s photographs

Volunteer Park Conservatory, Seattle. Author’s photographs

My earliest memories of a public garden are of the conservatory on Belle Isle, a large island park in the middle of the Detroit River. Built at the turn of the century, it was a classic glasshouse with rooms devoted to ferns, aquatics, cacti, and potted flowering plants that were rotated with the seasons. On our annual winter visits—snow drifted high against the glass and stone walls—I could escape into the warm humid air of the tropic rooms. Early on, I developed a love affair with cyclamen (a feature of the winter floral show), which, decades later, still rank among my favorite garden plants.

A hybrid Vireya rhododendron (R. ‘Kurt Adler’ x R. leucogigas) in the Volunteer Park Conservatory

A hybrid Vireya rhododendron (R. ‘Kurt Adler’ x R. leucogigas) in the Volunteer Park Conservatory

Those childhood memories flooded back on a recent visit to the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle. We toured this jewel of a conservatory, about the same scale as the one in Detroit, and found ourselves transported. Though the day was cold and heavily overcast, the interior was bursting with lush foliage and colorful flowers from tropic, temperate, and arid regions of the world. Lovingly restored only a few years ago, the collections here are beautifully maintained and thoughtfully interpreted in signs and self-guiding brochures.

We then visited the Center for Urban Horticulture on the University of Washington campus to check on the rebuilding of the Miller Library following the tragic fire of a few years ago. Undamaged in that fire, the public gardens at the entrance to the complex were full of take-home ideas for enhancing the winter appeal of a garden through careful selection of flowers, foliage, and bark.

The difference between these two public gardens, only a few miles apart, hints at the diversity of the West’s public gardens—a diversity that far surpasses what was available to me as a child in southeastern Michigan. From the horticultural wonderland of VanDusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver and the rhododendron haven at Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens to the dramatic compositions of succulents at The Ruth Bancroft Garden and the Huntington, these gardens play a great role in our lives, offering much to see, to enjoy, and to learn.

Public gardens are important for more than garden lovers: even in the Victorian era, when Golden Gate Park and its Conservatory were constructed, public parks and gardens were promoted as beneficial for the poor and disadvantaged. Those benefits continue to serve our communities today, in spite of declining budgets that threaten their existence. Few, in fact, would be thriving today without the advocacy and financial support of the public—and particularly gardeners like you and me.

Bergenia and grasses provide winter interest in the gardens at the Center for Urban Horticulture, Seattle

Bergenia and grasses provide winter interest in the gardens at the Center for Urban Horticulture, Seattle

The restoration of the Volunteer Park Conservatory might never have happened had not local activists banded together as the Friends of Volunteer Park. Likewise, the extensive reconstruction of the Golden Gate Park Conservatory was made possible by the support of thousands of donors—some giving no more than a dollar, but each gift important to the cause.

In years past, I’ve had the pleasure of working on the design, management, and educational programs of various public gardens in the Midwest and on the West Coast. Now, as editor, I often look to the staff of public gardens for contributions to the pages of Pacific Horticulture; in fulfilling their educational mission, these garden professionals help me achieve our goal of educating our readers about plants, designs, and practices that suit the West Coast gardener. We have occasionally joined with public gardens in sponsoring educational tours to the far corners of the globe. And, again in 2004, we will be co-sponsoring our fourth symposium, Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies: Exploring California Style, with Strybing Arboretum & Botanical Gardens in San Francisco and the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanical Garden in Arcadia.

These associations continue to nurture me, and I sincerely hope that our readers and participants benefit as well. In return, I urge all our readers to support your local public garden through contributions, volunteer time, and advocacy. We will all benefit by assuring a healthy future for these public treasures.

RGT