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Public gardens are dreamy

(But maybe don’t look behind the leafy curtain)
A glorious white oak (Quercus alba) at White Haven Memorial Park, a Level I ArbNet Certified Arboretum in Pittsford (where the staff is lovely, and it’s more than safe to look behind the curtain!)

When I was fresh out of grad school, I worked for a botanical garden in the education department. I’d gotten a master’s degree and racked up relevant experiences so that I could be a qualified applicant for one of these plum jobs; once I landed it, I thought I’d stay forever. 

I love public gardens with big budgets; they can do outrageous displays and ambitious research. I also love those smaller ones that are underfunded or even in a bit of decline. I often find them to be the most inspiring, because they are permeated with the love of tireless volunteers who are keeping them going to whatever extent they can. In either case, be they world-class or regional and scrappy, there is much one can learn from public gardens. 

The most exciting aspect of my own horticulture education was any time I came in contact with public gardens. I worked and studied in the Virginia Tech Hahn Horticulture Garden, interned at the Holden Arboretum in Ohio, and went on field trips to see dozens of public gardens. I got to live my dream job when I worked in the aforementioned education department of a botanical garden. I walked around hundreds of tree species and through lush gardens whenever I stepped outside my office … the magic of that never faded.

So why did I stay in the job for less than three years? It wasn’t that I didn’t love the work—I truly did, but there were unforeseen forces that came together to propel me westward, to live with my then-partner. She had a better paying job than I did, and we’d come to a crossroads. During this time, we both sustained injuries and found it extremely challenging to care for each other across distance. My beloved boss at the botanical garden became terminally ill. That really shook me up—why her, why now? She was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. For me, in her absence, rudderless feelings sometimes crept in. And then, the horrific events of 9/11 had me—indeed, most people—reevaluating priorities. The classic work versus family dilemma forced my hand. 

I felt guilty about leaving my dream job before fulfilling at least five years, the commitment asked of me when I was hired. But ultimately the botanical garden was better off, too, because I couldn’t sustain the huge amount of extrovert energy that job required. Over time, I’ve accepted that I am introverted and happiest when I work with a few people and have a small, but rich, social circle. Meanwhile, the person who took the botanical job after me has done it for decades, and I truly admire them for their commitment and longevity. 

Public gardens are horticultural utopias, and who isn’t drawn to the ideal? So maybe it’s surprising if I tell you that I don’t go visit them very often anymore. For one thing, my midlife passion is birds. But it’s also that when visiting public gardens, I rather quickly find myself feeling very … tired. I know too much about how much work it takes to keep these landscapes going, and not just the highly manicured ones. Friends, it is SO MUCH WORK. One gardener at the place I worked candidly shared how bored they felt in their job, doing the same things over and over. An arborist there said, “It’s great to work outside, but also, you have to work outside.” Little did he and I know how quickly erratic weather and its extremes would worsen.

In talking with folks who work(ed) at other public gardens, we agree that horticulture as a field tends to draw friendly and interesting people to it. Yet somehow the workplace politics in a public garden can be almost as vexing as anywhere else. Mediations between workers are sometimes necessary. There can be tensions between leadership and the unionized members. Leadership wants to expand the botanical gardens in a historically unprecedented way, but gardeners are understandably worried about how all this additional work would get done. Big donors like to give towards new gardens, but will there be an endowment for maintenance? Workers can be sincerely stressed about what expansion means for them and how it will affect the vibe of the place. Will it become slick and corporate? Can it retain a homey feeling? Can we still bring our dogs to work? 


Public gardens include arboreta and botanical gardens. Historically, arboreta have focused on curated collections of woody plants, while botanical gardens have had a broader focus, featuring showy gardens and/or collections of both woody plants and herbaceous plants. Many public gardens began as private gardens by people who were passionate plant collectors.

Increasingly, college campuses are formally registering as arboreta, maintaining their trees as collections with plant labels, databases, educational programs, and master plans. The University of Rochester campus arboretum is Level II Certified by ArbNet. White Haven Memorial Park in Pittsford is a Level I Certified Arboretum, as is South Park Arboretum in Buffalo. ArbNet certification is one way that an institution shows its desire to invest significantly in the diversity and health of its plant collections.


One of the best ways to learn plants is to visit a public garden in your region at regular intervals throughout the growing season. Arboreta and botanical gardens are the ideal places to learn plant identification; there are often plant labels and many arrange at least some of their collections by plant family to help you in your plant identification studies. If you have the time, you can volunteer to work in a specific garden or in the greenhouse. All of that repetition and observation will pay off. Speaking of volunteers, they seem to be having a lot more fun than the staff at public gardens. So maybe if you venture to take a peek behind the leafy curtain, do it in a volunteer capacity. 

: An unforgettable smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria) in Rochester’s Highland Park


There’s a dark thing that can happen in botanical gardens: plant theft. At the botanical garden where I worked, thieves had stolen some of the rarest plants from the collection. Whoever did it knew a good deal about rare plants and their value on the market. That is just the lowest of the low. There is a fascinating post about plant thefts from the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and elsewhere on the Garden History Girl blog; the post is called “Booby-trapped daffodils and a stolen water lily: 100 years of plant thefts.” 


Not all public gardens label their plants, but when you do see a plant label, it could be a display label or an accession tag. A display label usually has the bare bones of ID information: binomial Latin name, common name, and perhaps plant family. By contrast, an accession tag has more collections-based information, often including the nursery from which the plant came, the geographic origin of the species, and an accession number. 

The display label above gives you the common name “Bottlebrush Buckeye” and the Latin name (Aesculus x carnea) and cultivar (‘Briotii’). By contrast, the accession tag shown gives you the common and Latin name for an ornamental onion cultivar, Allium thunbergii ‘Ozawa’. It tells you that it’s in the Alliaceae family and that it came from Roslyn Nursery—and it also has an accession number. This number, 06-220A, tells you that this batch of ‘Ozawa’ allium bulbs were accepted into the collections (i.e., accessioned) in 2006; that this batch of alliums was the institution’s 220th accession in 2006; and the A indicates that there are more than one of them in the collections—the others will be labeled B, C, etc. (If there is no letter, that means there was only one of its species acquired at that time.)

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.

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