On August 25, 2005 the first-year Longwood Fellows visited "Maryland's Premier Public Garden," Brookside Gardens, in Wheaton, Maryland. We met with Mr. David Vismara, Director of Brookside, and the directorial staff to discuss the structure and operations of this fascinating public garden. This was a very lovely place, and unique to any other we had visited during the summer.
It was very intriguing to learn that the 36-year-old garden works with three groups within the Maryland State Parks and Recreation system: The Montgomery County Department of Parks and Planning, The Montgomery County Planning Board, and The Maryland-National Capital Parks & Planning Commission (MNCPPC). The function of the Department of Parks and Planning is "to improve the quality of life by conserving and enhancing the natural and developed environment for current and future generations" (Brookside Gardens, 2005). This organization oversees the management and development of natural lands as a service for the surrounding community and also prepares master plans for approval by the Planning Board and the County Council. The Montgomery County Planning Board works to provide guidance for the future development of the 31,455-acre park system of Montgomery County. The Planning Board additionally partners with the Prince George's County Planning Board to serve as the MNCPPC and works to develop and operate public park systems and provide land use planning for the physical development of Montgomery and Prince George's Counties (MNCPPC, 2005).
Brookside Gardens is also composed of two off-site areas as well. McCrillis Gardens, near Bethesda, Maryland, was donated to the MNCPPC in 1978 by the McCrillis family ( Brookside Gardens, 2005). Brookside manages this satellite garden which is considered a premier shade garden. The second site is not yet developed, but the land has been secured for Brookside. The hope is to create a garden which is useful to the surrounding area, so an organic vegetable garden design is in the preliminary plans. Additionally, the two satellite gardens are slated to go under the name of Brookside in the near future, as a way of connecting them in the public's eye.
In 2004, Brookside staff consisted of 29 career staff, 2 contract staff, and 37 seasonal employees (Annual Report, 2004). Brookside is unique in the Parks System in that it offers one of the best working environments for staff, by providing equal amenities to all staff, such as computer access and office space, a library full of plant-related resources, and by encouraging participation in numerous internal training opportunities. Staff attended over 200 different training sessions in 2004 (Annual Report, 2005)! In addition to a great staff, Brookside relies heavily on volunteers. With over 800 volunteers, Brookside calculated almost $400,000 worth of volunteer labor in 2004 (Annual Report, 2005). The volunteer program has been identified as an area that needs further development in order to fully benefit Brookside, and a new Volunteer Coordinator position is in the future plans. Brookside hopes to tap into the student service-learning volunteers who are increasing in number, as volunteering is a requirement for high school graduation in the state of Maryland.
Brookside receives the majority of its funding from the Parks System of Maryland, which provides $1.5 - $2 million worth of services such as heating and cooling, full tree service, building maintenance services, utilities and postage. Brookside runs on a $2 million operating budget, and receives about $1 million in enterprise revenue (funding from events, rentals, light show, and gift shop) every year. The Friends of Brookside Gardens also have yearly plant sales that support the Gardens with approximately $80,000 (Annual Report, 2005). Mr. Vismara stated that he is now leaning towards increasing their donor programs, which would provide more resources for expansion. As a result, new fundraising strategies are currently being sought.
While Brookside does not have an executive board in its structure, they do answer to the Parks System Planning Board to get funding requests, master plans and project proposals accepted. Mr. Vismara explained that being the only public garden within a parks system is a challenge and a blessing at different times. On the one hand, the Parks System is unaware of some basic differences of how public gardens operate when compared to state parks and at times there is confusion and lack of focus in the right areas. On the other hand, Brookside is a trailblazer and has some degree of freedom to create its own destiny because no one has done it before! At the same time, Mr. Vismara said that it has been amazing to see the Gardens develop through the years within the Parks Service.
The newly accepted Master Plan has passed through the Planning Board with hopes to start implementation in the near future. The Strategic Plan has been a new development for Brookside and is not a requirement within the Parks System. After presenting the plan to the Planning Board, new positions were created and further development has occurred - always a good thing!
Environmental stewardship is high on the list for Brookside. Composting, removal of invasive plants, the use of IPM methods in grounds management, the use of local mulch materials, recycling waste products from gardens and visitors, and providing organic and natural foods during catered events are priorities. As a public garden, environmental stewardship sometimes takes a back seat in priorities, but Brookside is progressive in this critical area of management.
Brookside Gardens' mission, as a public garden, is to foster appreciation for the art of gardening and the science of horticulture through plant collections and displays, learning opportunities and special events (Brookside Gardens , 2005). Brookside fulfills its mission by serving as the most popular public attraction in Montgomery County through magnificent garden displays and more than 600 events annually, including classes, special programs, rentals and other community events. With nearly 400,000 visitors every year, it is amazing that it remains free of charge! Just walking the grounds during our visit, the students noticed the broad demographic range of the visitors on a Friday afternoon - and surprisingly busy for a weekday.
Brookside is unique in that it offers a very wide range of public garden resources and that is precisely why they are growing so successfully. From children's classes, to the "Green Matters: Environment, Ethics, and Education" Symposium, to the School of Botanical Art and Illustration, a vast array of interests is covered.
There is also a constantly changing art display in the Visitors' Center that showcases work of artists from the region and local community. Additionally, Brookside Gardens has one of the area's best Christmas light shows, a Chrysanthemum Display, a Butterfly Show, and a Sculpture Show, among many other displays, shows, and programs that are offered throughout the year.
All in all, visiting Brookside and meeting Mr. Vismara and his staff was such a pleasure, as they were very welcoming and informative. This was a great fieldtrip to end our summer series!
Annual Report (Fiscal Year 2004) for Brookside Gardens, 2005. Brookside Gardens .
Brookside Gardens, 2005. http://www.mc-mncppc.org/parks/brookside , accessed online 8/28/05.
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC), 2005. http://www.mncppc.org , accessed online 8/28/05.