If spring of 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that outdoor spaces are a saving grace. Public gardens are an especially wonderful escape, not only for visitors but professionals as well. With travel restrictions lifting, public gardens are reopening all across the South, so you can take along the kids while finding some inspiration for your own landscaping and design projects. Here are a few of our favorites:
Reynolda Gardens at Wake Forest University
One of the most popular attractions in North Carolina is the home and gardens of tobacco tycoon R.J. Reynolds and his wife, Katharine. More than 100 years ago, the couple completed a grand estate on 1,000 acres in Winston-Salem, including beautiful gardens and a model farm.
“Katharine built the estate for health reasons around the time of the 1918 pandemic,” notes Jon Roethling, director and horticulturist for Reynolda Gardens at Wake Forest University. “It’s ironic today that we’re facing kind of the same thing. So many people have found a retreat here. It’s one of the amazing things about this place.”
While the art museum has been closed through COVID-19, the gardens and walking trails have remained open, and admission is free.
The estate includes four theme gardens designed by Thomas Sears—the Pink and White Garden, the Blue and Yellow Garden, two AAS Rose Gardens, Japanese-style tea houses, pergolas, two fountains, perennial and shrub borders, and a central lawn.
The 1913 greenhouse is one of just 12 Lord and Burnham working greenhouses remaining today, notes Roethling. The Conservatory features an educational display of plants, including orchids, bromeliads, cacti, aroids and palms. Plants are available for sale to the public and are also used throughout the gardens. Reynolda Gardens also grows and donates around 900 pounds of vegetables to Hope of Winston-Salem each year.
Historic Past, Fresh Future
Roethling joined Reynolda Gardens at the end of 2018 from High Point University’s Mariana Qubein Botanical Gardens. He and his team of five care for more than 130 acres. “We have every aspect of horticulture,” he says. “Woodlands, meadows and wetlands.”
Roethling’s task is to honor Katharine’s vision for the grounds while continuing to make the gardens new and relevant today.
“We’re exploring ways to respect the historic intent while getting people to come back to see new things,” says Roethling. “We don’t have to grow vegetables in rows; we can think about design. We can still have a blue and yellow garden and a pink and white garden, but include many more types of flowers. So much has changed since the original cultivators in 1913. The environment has changed. Diseases have changed. We’ve had 100 years of petunia breeding alone.”
Roethling has been working with Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery at Juniper Level Botanic Gardens. Avent is known for his native, rare and unique perennials. And according to Roethling, he has the best plant selection in the Southeast.
Roethling is a former research technician at JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State University and shares a love for plants with his wife, Adrienne, who serves as a director at the Paul J. Ciener Botanical Garden in Kernersville. Roethling loves discovering new plants and then sharing them. “I want people to come to the gardens and say ‘oh my gosh, I’ve never seen that before.’ ”
Besides refreshing the estate’s gardens, Roethling is also updating the trails and creating little surprise gardens along the way. “As you’re walking, you might see some native hydrangeas or trilliums.”
The gardens have long been known for their weeping cherry trees in the spring, but Roethling’s goal is to broaden the broaden the palette and create an attraction every season of the year. His team has been putting in some deciduous azaleas and hollies as well as a variety of dogwoods and redbuds.
“Reynolda is to Winston-Salem what Central Park is to New York,” says Roethling. “Whether you’re a stressed-out student or just need some fresh air, the gardens are like natural Xanax. There is a such a natural healing aspect that’s been especially vital during this time.”