A botanical garden may begin to see new life soon after the Charlottesville City Council voted last week to officially lease the site to the Botanical Garden of the Piedmont for at least 40 years.
The Botanical Garden of the Piedmont began in 2008 as McIntire Botanical Garden, which was established as a 501c3 nonprofit organization with the purpose of educating the community about the benefits of a botanical garden, said Jill Trischman-Marks, executive director. The garden is located at the corner of John Warner Parkway and Melbourne Road, across from the Charlottesville High School football field.
In 2012, the city started a master plan process for McIntire Park East to determine what to do with the site. Once a a golf course, it had become a leaf mulch pile. The city received input from the community through public feedback sessions.
“The public has made it known that the canopy garden was a desired use for the garden for the park,” Trischman-Marks said. As a result, the city designated 8.5 acres for the botanical botanical garden, but that’s where the taxpayer burden ends.
“The city was particularly interested in having a botanical garden because one of their goals is to be considered a green city, but also Parks and Rec was offering all kinds of programming but they didn’t have the capacity to offer environmental education. And so that was basically one of our jobs to do that for the city, to make sure that that was being offered to the citizens of Charlottesville,” she said.
“Our job is to raise the funds to design, construct and maintain it. And once it is built, all of those features that we had raised the funds for would then become the property of the city of Charlottesville, and they will have to maintain it,” Trischman-Marks said.
The Botanical Garden of the Piedmont started stewarding the area and working on the beginnings of a garden in 2019. The initial work was more about cleaning and clearing than gardening.
“The first thing we had to do was get the garbage out, and there were mattresses and tires and things, of course we’re still finding garbage here. We had to hire a forestry mulcher because it was so dense, but once we got in there and started clearing out, we then started creating trails,” Trischman-Marks said.
The group also removed invasive plants that disrupted the natural habitat. As the project grows, the organization will plant native plant species as well as plants that are known to adapt well to the local environment. That, in turn will bring more animals native to the environment.
“When we first started stewarding the site, we had a PhD candidate in herpetology come and investigate the streams, looking for reptiles and amphibians, and all they found was one dead box turtle. So for us to be able to see [live] box turtles now is a huge deal. Plus we now know we have a variety of different frogs. So by removing all of these invasive plants, we’ve given native plants an opportunity to survive and thrive, and then we’re seeing through the food chain that now the site is healing itself,” Trischman-Marks said.
The Botanical Garden of the Piedmont hired a team of landscape architects to come up with a plan for the space after holding community input sessions.
“[People] told us that they wanted this garden to be a place to bring people of all ages and backgrounds together. We started the input set up sessions in the spring following August 2017 [Unite the Right riots]. People were particularly interested in this garden being a place that would bring all people together so we can get to know one another, and help heal the community in a convenient, safe, welcoming natural outdoor space, and the Board of Directors completely bought into that vision for this garden,” Trischman-Marks said.
The master plan won a national award from the American Society of Landscape Architects.
“It redefined what a botanical garden can be so it’s not just a place for discovering horticulture, but it adds a distinct social overlay of drawing people together,” Trischman-Marks said.
The Botanical Garden of the Piedmont had to prove its innovation to show this garden would be an asset to the city.
“To get to the point where City Council was willing to trust us enough with this land lease agreement, we had to have been working hard to prove our relevance to all of the community and not just the old ladies and men that might go to botanical gardens,” Trischman-Marks said,
The site plan includes a visitor center, an event green and an outdoor amphitheater. It will also feature a children’s garden that will provide opportunities for children to immerse themselves in and explore the garden, as well as an aquatic garden with walking paths to give visitors an up close look at the aquatic plants.
“We have about $25 million to raise and that doesn’t include the responsibilities that we take on with this new land lease agreement. But we also know that we have a lot of support in the community for this project, especially with the land lease agreement. So we expect that we will raise the funds for the first phase of the garden, and have the next two design phases completed, as well as the first phase of construction done in three to five years,” Trischman-Marks said.
The first phase is expected to cost $5 million to $10 million.
The organization has sought money from the city’s Capital Improvement Plan budget in the past, but there has never been enough money for the garden to get any, which has resulted in removing some aspects of the master plan, such as an accessibility bridge. Trischman-Marks said the garden has been applying for grants and hoping for some large individual donors to take an interest in the project.
While there is still a lot of money to be raised and construction and planting to be done, the garden is still an attraction to the community in its early stages. Over 40 species of trees are planted within the garden, and the organization offers bird, butterfly and tree identification tours.
An unexpected silver lining for the garden was community members came to visit more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. It became a popular place to walk and gather outdoors, and Trischman-Marks said sometimes people hold board meetings in the garden’s gathering circles of log benches.
“Our educational tours ended with COVID. But what we started noticing was the site was used more than it ever had been before. So we contacted our community partners, especially those nonprofits that work with children and people with mental health issues and we invited them on site tours. We asked ‘what can we do to make the site more accessible and welcoming so that you can provide services here?’ Many of them are unable to offer services in their indoor facilities because of COVID. So they told us that they needed places for one on one conversation, small areas for group gatherings and support groups and places that have long visual distant capacity for supervised visits,” Trischman-Marks said.
During this time, the Botanical Garden of the Piedmont arranged more socially distanced site tours to get community input. Jt also hosted volunteer events, which proved to be very popular with the community. Trischman-Marks said the garden’s volunteer corps grew from 200 to 370 volunteers during the pandemic.
The organization is trying to make the garden rehabilitation process and stream restoration an educational process by working with area youth. Through a grant and by partnering with the Rivanna Conservation Alliance, local Boy and Girl Scouts, and Charlottesville City and Albemarle County Public Schools, local students have gotten a close up view of the process.
The garden also hosted a portion of Central Virginia Governor’s School Reflections program for middle school art students. 40 area students created works of visual art in the garden using plants and natural objects. Trischman-Marks is hopeful that as the garden grows, it can continue to host similar opportunities.
The mission of the garden is more than just plants, Trischman-Marks said. The site offers educational opportunities as well as a space for community members to just exist in and enjoy nature.
“One of the things that the pandemic has highlighted is how both mental health and physical health are improved for people of all ages and backgrounds when you spend time in nature,” Trischman-Marks said.
She said she hopes people come to enjoy what the garden has to offer even before it goes through the more in-depth design stages.
“We invite people to come out here. We’re open every day of the year, from sunrise to sunset. We just ask if you bring anything in you take it out with you,” Trischman-Marks said.