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After a ‘lost spring,’ U.S. public gardens prepare for an uncertain summer

South Coast Botanic Garden near Los Angeles has remained open during the pandemic, but most public gardens across the United States have been closed this spring.
South Coast Botanic Garden near Los Angeles has remained open during the pandemic, but most public gardens across the United States have been closed this spring. (Chuck Bennett/South Coast Botanic Garden)
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In recent weeks, Paul Redman has ended his workday by donning walking shoes and traversing the entire breadth of Longwood Gardens, the grand assemblage of conservatories, fountain terraces and gardens in the former du Pont estate in southeastern Pennsylvania.

For Redman, the botanical garden’s chief executive, the daily walks have brought home the two paradoxical realities of the past few weeks: the beauty of the Mid-Atlantic spring in a highly cultivated setting, and the total absence of visitors to soak it in.

“This is what we do. We share the beauty that we create,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking.” Of at least 600 public gardens across the United States, large and small, all but a handful have been closed since mid-March, when the coronavirus forced us to stay at home.

As people needed most the annual reaffirmation of life we know as spring, the best places to give us that were shuttered. Those in the fraternity of American botanical gardens now speak of “the lost spring.”

Redman and his counterparts across the country are eyeing a somewhat salvaged summer, as shutdown restrictions ease state by state, and public gardens are figuring out how to open safely under the strictures of social distancing. This generally will mean limited access to conservatories and other buildings, and controlled admission to meter the number of visitors in the gardens and grounds. The result will be a fraction of normal visitation.

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“We have done numerous virtual tours of the garden so people can get a sense of what it looks like,” said Brian Vogt, chief executive of the Denver Botanic Gardens, which draws more than 1.3 million visitors in a normal year. The gardens are famous for prairie and steppe gardens now coming into season, a large rock garden and other sophisticated displays of horticulture in an arid climate. It reopened to a limited number of visitors on Friday. Admission was by timed ticket, and face coverings were required.

Aside from the income loss, the challenge for botanical gardens has been in keeping precious plant collections healthy with significant reductions in their horticultural staff. Public gardens typically augment permanent gardening ranks with seasonal workers and rely on legions of volunteers for weeding, watering and grooming the gardens and plant displays.

At Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square, Pa., the workforce dropped from about 500 to 50 overnight at the threshold of the growing season. One immediate task was the safe transfer of thousands of rare orchids and other exotic plants on display in the ornate public conservatories back to their permanent homes in the behind-the-scenes greenhouses.

With no one to enjoy them and insufficient staff to maintain them, the spring seasonal plantings either remained in the production greenhouses or were ripped out. “We sent the entire crop to the compost pile,” Redman said, including masses of tulips planted last fall.

The 385-acre Chicago Botanic Garden, with 2.6 million plants in its permanent collection, has also ditched spring displays and is now planting summer annuals with the expectation of opening by early July. Its army of 1,400 volunteers remains in the wings.

Among the public gardens in the Washington area, the largest of them, the U.S. National Arboretum, is closed, although officials there are working on a reopening plan. The U.S. Botanic Garden, at the foot of the Capitol, is also shut, but Bartholdi Park, the terraces around the Conservatory and the planted perimeters of the National Garden are open. At Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Md., and Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia, the exterior spaces have remained open.

In addition to lost admissions sales, the shutdown has affected income from classes, plant sales, fundraisers and memberships. Marriage ceremonies and receptions are a significant source of revenue for some botanical gardens, but not this wedding season. “All forms of revenue were threatened immediately,” said Casey Sclar, executive director of the American Public Gardens Association. Collectively, the public gardens spend $42 million a month just keeping their plants healthy and greenhouses operating, he said.

Many public gardens have been trying to continue their services remotely, with video tours of spring displays, online classes and workshops, and programs for children — a boon for parents now home-schooling.

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But “it’s going to be a long time before they are up to speed again,” Sclar said, “especially the more dependent they are on events” for income.

At the National Arboretum in Northeast Washington, the one-acre Washington Youth Garden is in production but without the normal school group visits, volunteer youth gardeners and interns. The garden reaches 6,500 children and youths annually, most in underserved areas of the city, and programs are continuing remotely, said Cathy Kerkam, of the Friends of the National Arboretum, which runs the garden.

One of the achievements in Denver was a version of the garden’s spring plant sales through online orders, sorting and packaging of plants, and curbside delivery. “We ended up selling over 30,000 plants,” Vogt said. “And in the big picture, you think, how many of these miracles can we pull off?”

At Longwood, one of the casualties is the extravagant summer fountain displays, accompanied by music and fireworks, which reopened three years ago after a $90 million renovation. Drawing as many as 4,000 spectators a night, the events have been canceled for 2020. So have all on-site education programs. “The likelihood of people wanting to assemble in a classroom for a botanical illustration class, I just don’t see it happening,” said Redman, who is also Longwood’s president.

A few public gardens have remained partially open in states where that is allowed, including the 87-acre South Coast Botanic Garden in suburban Los Angeles. “We have had to make a lot of changes to operations very quickly, but the outcome was well worth it,” said chief executive Adrienne Nakashima. No buildings are open, and the number of admission tickets, purchased online, is limited per hour. Visitors are required to wear face coverings.

“It has been very fulfilling,” she said. “I know we have been a place of solace for a lot of people.”

The 175 acres of gardens and grounds at the Norfolk Botanical Garden in southeast Virginia have also remained open, at first for five days a week, returning to seven days (and longer hours) after long lines of cars had to be turned away. The limiting factor was the 400-space parking lot.

Michael Desplaines, president and chief executive, anticipates opening buildings under Virginia’s next phase of easing, with masks and social distancing. “It has been challenging but worth the effort,” he said. “We’ve received hundreds of letters, calls, emails saying thank you for staying open.”

The large rose garden has been in extravagant bloom this month. The botanic garden is one of 10 American gardens commemorated in new postage stamps released May 13. Desplaines and his colleagues took a bouquet from the rose garden to the local post office in a ceremony to mark the occasion.

Before the coronavirus crisis, “folks probably took open space and nature for granted,” said South Coast’s Nakashima. “Being outside and enjoying the springtime won’t look the same again after all of this.”

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

Tip of the Week

Annuals and warm-season vegetables are best transplanted on wet or cloudy days to avoid wilt stress from strong sunlight. Alternatively, they should be planted late in the day as the sun recedes.

— Adrian Higgins

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