Floridata Article

Public (Garden) Education

US Botanic Garden in Washington, DC. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
US Botanic Garden in Washington, DC.

A few weeks ago my husband and I traveled through parts of the Mid-Atlantic region. As usual, we visited various gardens and parks along the way. We gardeners can learn a lot from gardened or natural spaces and apply some of those lessons to our own properties. I know I'm always on the lookout.

What is a public garden?

For the purposes of this article, I'm referring to botanical gardens, nature preserves, state and national parks, zoos, arboreta, historical sites, college and university gardens.

Study How Gardens Complement the Scene

As shown in the top photo, the roses (Rosa spp.) climbing an arbor at the US Botanic Garden in Washington, DC provide the perfect foreground for the Capitol Building. When a garden's style matches or complements the nearby structures, buildings, or other features, it should be pleasing to your eye from any angle. There's an art to it and in my opinion, you can never study too many gardens. Don't forget to consider your view of the garden from the inside of those structures as well. Too often you can see only the ugly backs of overgrown shrubs from inside houses or porches.

Rainscaping sign at the US Botanic Garden. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Rainscaping sign at the US Botanic Garden.

Learn How to Handle Rainwater Within the Landscape

Rainscaping was a new term for me that I learned at a demonstration garden at the US Botanic Garden. This term encompasses all types of ideas to control rainwater including rain gardens, rain barrels, dry stream beds, and permeable paving. When gardeners, landscapers, and property managers implement rainscaping practices, pollution of our waterways will be reduced. Even though I've written about our rain gardens and rain barrels, I learned some interesting ways to incorporate permeable walkways with rain gardens. Demonstration gardens are the ones where you can learn the most, if you visit with an open mind.


An interesting planted arbor at the US Botanical Garden. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
An interesting planted arbor at the US Botanical Garden.

Pick Up Ideas for New Ways to Create Outdoor Spaces

This archway, with its extensive coconut fiber flower boxes, divides areas in front of the conservatory building at the US Botanical Garden. Later in the season when all these plants are filled out and bushy, you might be hard-pressed to figure out how they accomplished it. When it's freshly planted like this you can see that the gardeners have not only planted stuff in the tops of the boxes, but have also inserted plants into the sides. This is the technique often employed at theme parks and town centers where magnificent hanging baskets make time-pressed home gardeners green with envy. Planters like this require a lot of attention; so don't attempt it unless you arrange for regular irrigation, deadheading, and replanting.


Creating microclimates within a limited space. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
Creating microclimates within a limited space.

See How to Create Microclimates within a Small Space

By using a mound of limestone rocks and gravel, the garden designer was able to grow a set of xeric plants, while just a short distance away a bed of moist rich loam supports luxurious irises (Iris spp.). The normal, sustainable garden advice is to plant the right plants for your garden's environment because adjusting the acidity with lime or acid is only a temporary fix. Here in the US Botanic Garden, the mound of rocky substrate will be long-lived and these plants will not need further adjustments or amendments. I have applied this idea where I've created sandy mounds to provide a drier habitat for prickly pears in our yard. See my Microcrimates article.


Bouganivillea as a bonsai. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
Bougainvillea as a bonsai.

Learn to Use Common Plants in Unusual Ways

Who knew that a bougainvillea (Bougainvillea glabra) could be used as a bonsai? The bonsai garden at the National Arboretum is always interesting to me. Not that I long to or have the patience to torture plants like this, but the fact that some of these plants have been under cultivation for hundreds of years is amazing. A white pine there has been under cultivation since 1625! Still when I saw this striking bougainvillea bonsai, I was surprised. Maybe I could use another bonsaid woody vine in a container on my front porch.


Allium flowers contrast with yellow foliage. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
Allium flowers contrast with yellow foliage.

See How Foliage Color Makes a Strong and Long-lasting Statement

Many gardeners concentrate on flowers for color, but foliage color can be dramatic, too. Foliage color usually lasts longer than a flowering cycle. These purple onion (Allium spp.) flowers are offset by the yellowish foliage of a boxwood cultivar. This garden is at the National Arboretum, so I can't go back to see what the gardeners will do when the flowers fade away. Revisiting a local garden several times a year will give you ideas for transitioning the show in your own gardens. Supporting your local gardens with frequent visits means that they'll be around for future gardeners to enjoy.


Plants have been used medicinally through the ages. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
Plants have been used medicinally through the ages.

Learn about Historical Uses of Plants

In this demonstration garden at The National Arboretum, you can learn how various plants were used medicinally through the ages. In previous eras, if you wanted to become a doctor, you needed to study plants and their uses. There were no CVS pharmacies on every corner. This perspective of how important plants were/are is beautifully told in this garden. Some of our greatest wonder drugs may yet be discovered in some remote corner of the world.


Learn about which native plants attract butterflies. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
Learn about which native plants attract butterflies.

Learn which Native Plants Attract Butterflies

We traveled through parts of West Virginia and loved watching the eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus) enjoy the wild phlox (Phlox spp.). I'm not sure of the species, but if it's P. divaricata, it's also native to Florida. I can use a great shade-tolerant plant like this for some of our shady meadows. I'll put this plant on my wish list.

Visiting local natural or naturalized areas, gardeners can learn how native plants arrange themselves and get ideas for creating more sustainable landscaping. Wild flowers are not always easy to establish in our urban/suburban landscapes. Seeing how they grow in the wild can help gardeners create appropriate habitats or microclimates to grow them. (Reminder: don't collect plants from wild areas.)


Get ideas for recycling items within a garden. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
Get ideas for recycling items within a garden.

Get Ideas for Using Unexpected Items in the Garden

We stayed at a lakeside campground in South Carolina and I smiled when I saw this old metal boat being used as a planter for a rose garden in front of the camp office. Using a leaky boat for a raised bed will provide smiles, and will save resources, money, and time not needed to build sides with new materials. Such a raised bed will last a long time.


Longleaf pines growing wild near Ginny's house. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
Longleaf pines growing wild near Ginny's house.

Identify Your Own Plants

In demonstration gardens where plants are labeled, you can pay attention to find plants already growing on your property. But no matter how much you think you know, sometimes it takes plants growing in their native surroundings to help you figure out what you have growing on your property. This happened to me over the Christmas holiday when I took the family for a walk on a conservation area near our house. I talked to them about the longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) growing there. Later I realized that I had one growing in our yard: it was in its "grassy" stage and I didn't recognize it until that walk. See my article on longleaf pines.

Make a point to visit a wide variety of places where you can gather ideas to use in your own landscape. Go with an open mind, a camera, and a notebook so you can reflect upon what you've seen. I'll continue to keep you informed of our treks to public gardens and parks because it's all part of our public (garden) education.


- Florida has many beautiful state parks. This website provides a list of all the parks, those that could provide a one-gas-tank adventure, and a calendar of events. They advise: "Get real: Visit a Florida State Park" www.floridastateparks.org.
- The Florida Gardener website offers regional lists of Florida's public gardens, parks, preserves, and nature centers: www.floridagardener.com/FLGardens.
- American Public Gardens Association offers general information on the various types of public gardens or spaces where gardens can be found, and a search for member gardens in your area: www.publicgardens.org.

Ginny Stibolt moved to northeastern Florida in 2004 and even though she's a botanist and lifelong gardener, Florida gardening was a shock. She started writing The Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener columns for the Times Union newspaper in Jacksonville. This is one of those columns archived here on Floridata.com for your enjoyment. Now she's written three Florida garden books published by University Press of Florida: Sustainable Gardening for Florida, 2009; Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida with Melissa Contreras, 2013, and The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape, 2015. Check out her blog for the latest news and articles: www.GreenGardeningMatters.com

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