Journalist: Laura Aschenbeck
Photographer: Rebecca Pineo
Cylburn Arboretum in Baltimore, Maryland was our one-of-a-kind destination on August 14th. Not only does the organization have a unique history and serve as homebase for horticultural efforts throughout the city, it is currently in the last legs of a major construction process. Bill Vondrasek, Head of Horticulture, served as our guide throughout the day. As a Longwood Graduate alumnus (class of 2000), he had a thorough understanding of the purpose of our trip.
We began our trip by inaugurating the entry gates and new drive, part of the ongoing construction. Cylburn was in need of change after its long history. The 207-acre property began in 1863 as a summer domicile for wealthy Baltimore businessman, Jesse Tyson. At age 60, Mr. Tyson married a young woman and moved into the mansion permanently. After his death, Mrs. Tyson married again and continued living on the property. Following her death in the early 20th century, the mansion and property became a home for wayward children into the 1940’s. In 1954, the Board of Recreation and Parks founded the Cylburn Wildflower Preserve and Garden Center. The first chief of horticulture was hired at that time, and began transforming the property into its current design. He had a particular fondness for Asian plants, resulting in the Arboretum’s distinctive collection of exotic non-invasives. The name of the land was changed to Cylburn Arboretum in 1982; its associated volunteer group was renamed the Cylburn Arboretum Association, Inc.
Cylburn Arboretum is still operated by the city of Baltimore; the Cylburn Arboretum Association raises additional funds for the property. A Visitor and Education Center was needed badly at the Arboretum; it was difficult for the public to navigate upon entering the property. Bill also emphasized the importance in competing for the residents’ interest (and therefore the city’s money) with municipal pools and other city-run recreation. The current construction project was made possible by initial donations of about $1 million by the Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland and the Horticulture Society of Maryland. Both organizations use the Arboretum regularly and wanted additional venues for their activities. The city agreed to match the donation, and plans were started!
The construction process was almost complete at the time of our visit; Bill gave a wonderful step-by-step overview. Of initial importance were two main drives: one for maintenance and deliveries, another for the public. The maintenance road also gave accessibility to large swaths of invasive shrubs and vines, which have been cleared away from the historic trees. The largest part of the project is the actual Visitor and Education Center and additions to the Horticulture building. The Center will be “green” in many respects: green roofs, composting toilets, and geothermal heating and cooling will minimize the building’s impact on the land. Its design is also meant to minimally impact the surrounding landscape; the building is tucked into the side of a hill, constructed from recycled/recyclable materials, and has large windows that allow a view of the trees beyond. Additions to the horticulture building include a classroom, improved restrooms for staff and students, and an area for plant sales. The third part of construction includes the surrounding gardens, carriage house and paths. The formal gardens by the mansion will be renovated (including a deer fence around the border), and plans are being made to transform the original nursery into a meditative shade garden. The carriage house currently houses a nature museum, whose future use is uncertain at this time. Bill stated that the “soft” opening would occur in the next six months and the grand opening was slated for spring of 2010.
As we toured the construction sites in our fashionable yellow hardhats, Bill gave us sage advice regarding construction projects at public gardens. At the beginning of such projects, he urged us to bear in mind all possible needs for the space, taking into consideration the organization and donor’s needs and desires. He also talked about the difficult, but essential, nature of maintaining open communication with multiple contractors. Ongoing misunderstandings often revolve around plant protection measures.
After our hardhat tour, we had lunch in the mansion with Natalie Lopes, the Executive Director of the Cylburn Arboretum Association. Natalie showed an avid interest in evolving Cylburn’s atmosphere along with its physical features. She discussed the presumed exclusivity of the Arboretum in the past, and some of her plans for change. One of these plans is a young adult training course in horticulture. Natalie and her staff are currently interviewing candidates, and will accept six to seven students. She hopes this six-week training with Bill’s staff will create a good connection with the community, minorities, and younger generations. Bill added that it was a mutually beneficial relationship; hopefully some of the program’s graduates could become part of his staff.
While nibbling on desserts, Bill gave us a PowerPoint overview of his department’s contributions to Baltimore. The Rawlings Baltimore Conservatory came up first. This gem was built over the course of a century, with its most recent changes occurring in 2000. It contains a Mediterranean, tropical and desert house in addition to the main conservatory. Bill has also tackled the area around City Hall; he was given permission to plant the space with vegetables! This venture is bringing urban agriculture to the forefront of people’s attention. Bill discussed the difficulty of gaining the support of the mayor, his supervisor, but his department’s hard work and the attractive results have produced more funding. Our minds were opened to a broader definition of public horticulture as Bill outlined the changes made to the outside of the police department, on busy street corners and neglected medians. With seven parks to maintain, greenhouse crops to raise and an arboretum to oversee, Bill and his staff certainly have their hands full!
Cylburn Arboretum and the horticultural efforts of the Board of Recreation and Parks were a unique experience for the First Year Longwood Graduates this summer. Public gardens are much more than formal botanical gardens, and cities such as Baltimore are proof.