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Out of Curiosity, What are Our Reference Gardens Up To?

In 2008, following the lead of the NE Region, SE Region invited several public gardens to apply for and join a new program–the Conifer Reference Garden Progra–designed to highlight notable public conifer collections. Over the next few months, six gardens applied for and were approved as SE Reference Gardens, and as they say, the rest is history. 2016 marks the 8th year of the Reference Garden program in the Southeast Region. At the end of the year, 19 public gardens were participating in our program. The two latest additions, Brookgreen Gardens (Murrells Inlet, SC) and Lockerly Arboretum (Milledgeville, GA) joined in October.

The ACS is very generous to our participating gardens, in the form of grants that we award each year. Since 2009, our region has awarded 21 grants totaling more than $30,000 to our Reference Gardens through our regional grant program. Funded by the proceeds from our regional meetings and auctions, the SE Region can be proud of the investment we have made in our public gardens. In February 2016, $1500 grants were awarded to Smith Gilbert Gardens (Kennesaw, GA) and JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC). A report and photos of how this money was used by Smith Gilbert will appear an upcoming issue of the newsletter. You can find the report from JC Raulston Arboretum beginning on page 9 of the current edition.

To join our Reference Garden program, a garden must meet certain criteria and agree to submit a short report annually summarizing their conifer related activities. After reviewing all of the reports for 2016, I’m pleased to say that our Reference Gardens are active and growing! Despite record heat and both minimal and excessive rainfall in many areas of the SE, more than 600 conifers were planted and a myriad of programs were presented throughout our Reference Gardens.

Photo courtesy of Atlanta Botanical Garden


Below we highlight responses from those gardens that reported specific noteworthy activity in 2016: conifer related programs and activities, conifer collection expansion, and weather-related highlights. Each bullet represents the response of a garden to a specific question, and the garden’s name is included. It is particularly interesting to note that while some gardens battled drought and heat, others were dealing with hurricanes and excessive rainfall. The one thing every garden has in common? Mother Nature kept everyone on their toes last year. After reading through these responses, I hope you will agree that our Reference Gardens are indeed helping to spread the word that conifers are a great landscape option in Southern gardens.

[Editor’s note: Barbie’s initial list of responses from our Reference Gardens was vast, so it was necessary to edit it to some degree. I have retained representative responses when there were several that were similar, and I have shortened other responses and lists, when needed. Do not blame Barbie!) Even if a Reference Garden is not represented in this list, readers should understand that so much is happening in all our RG’s that we can only offer a small sample, here. SPH]

Conifer Programs and Activities

We taught a class on fall container gardening that had a section about using conifers in containers. I also wrote an article featuring the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s collection for the regional newsletter. (Atlanta Botanical Garden).

We conducted a tree-planting and gardening activity on Earth Day 2016. During this time we planted some 32 new conifers into our Dwarf Conifer Garden and installed some 65 new tree identification signs in that garden. (East Tennessee State University Arboretum, Johnson City TN).

Our winter propagation workshop teaches and encourages conifer propagation. Our Triangle Bonsai Expo features many conifers. The Plantsmen’s Tour featuring ground-covers highlights several coniferous groundcovers. The Bonsai Lecture and Workshop featured conifers, as did our daytrip to Architectural Trees, a nursery focused on conifers. (J.C. Raulston Arboretum, Raleigh NC).

Adult Education: Information on conifers was significantly included in the following programs:
*3/5/16: Plants for Richmond Gardens: Late Winter, 7 attendees
*10/15/16: “Fall Pruning for Shrubs and Small Ornamental Trees”, 8 attendees
*Adult Education Tour “Visiting Special Trees”. This tour always includes our conifer collection and was offered twice this year. Offered 6/1/16 and 8/13/16 – 34 total attendees

*Children’s/Family Education: During the months of November and December, the Children’s Garden offered a scavenger hunt activity called “Conifer Quest”. Participants received a brochure with some basic conifer facts and instructions for a scavenger hunt that highlighted 6 different conifers in the collection. Participants who found and named all six received a conifer quest button. As of 12/13/16, 198 families have participated.

*Our April-May Kid’s Quest featured a Cryptomeria and 324 of this activity brochure were distributed. Our November 2015-January 2016 Kid’s Quest featured 3 conifers and 91 copies of this activity brochure were distributed.

The following programs offered this year all contained a significant amount of information on conifers:

*Tree Traits | K – 2 Grade
Journey through the forest to discover the array of plants and animals that live in this habitat.
By observing the characteristic shape, color and texture of leaves, bark, and seed pods, students learn basic skills for identifying trees and discover how each part of a tree functions.

*Trees in Winter | January – February (24 students participated)
Which trees shed their leaves and which ones keep them year round? While exploring the Garden, students compare the shapes, smells, and colors of trees while exploring how trees adapt to cold weather. Children will collect a variety of leaves and natural materials on our exploration and make a fragrant evergreen sachet to take home. (Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Richmond VA).

Streb Minor Gazebo, Sydnor Lake, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (Photo by Chuck Sallette)


Director of Horticulture, Rick Pudwell did a talk on conifers on October 27 with 20 attendees. (Memphis Botanic Garden).

The Conifer Garden was included in walk and talks for Goochland Powhatan Master Gardeners and J. Sargeant Reynolds students. (Al Gardner Memorial Conifer Garden, Reynolds Community College, Goochland VA).

Our Holiday Display consisted of 3 – 16′ Burkii cedars (Juniperus virginiana ‘Burkii’) as our focal trees and 2 – 10′ Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica). (State Botanical Garden of GA, Athens GA).

In 2016 we offered classes that incorporated conifers. Examples: NBG Champion Trees (showcases VA State Champion Conifers Cupressus chegiana, Glyptostrobus pensilis and Sequoia sempervirens. We also highlight conifers in our Winter Interest classes. Our horticulturist, Carl Simmons, wrote an article for the Virginian Pilot about NBG’s Conifer Collection: (Norfolk Botanical Garden).

Photo courtesy of Lockerly Arboretum


In 2016 I gave presentation or tours to approximately 4313 people. I gave 26 PowerPoint presentations with around half of those including conifers in the talk. Several talks focused on winter interests or screen plantings with much attention given to conifers. (University of Tennessee-Jackson TN).

Yes, two different educational programs reaching a total of 140 people. One tour of our RG collection. No special conifer sale this year but conifers are always available at our spring and fall plant sales. (University of Tennessee Gardens, Knoxville TN).

Steve Carroll presented “The State Arboretum of Virginia and its Ginkgo Grove,” an after-dinner keynote address, American Conifer Society Southeast Chapter annual meeting, Waynesboro, VA, August 28, 2016. We also offered a photography workshop: “Ginkgo Watch: Golden Ginkgos” public photography workshop, October 26, 2016. (State Arboretum of VA, Boyce VA).

State Arboretum of Virginia Gingko Grove (Photo by Tim Farmer)


Conifer Collection Expansion/Signage/Educational Materials

2016 was a great year for the conifer collection at the garden! We added many new conifers to our collection at the Atlanta garden as well as at the Gainesville garden. In Atlanta, we opened our new children’s garden featuring a fun Taxodium tunnel for children to play in while learning about weeping trees. Our dwarf conifer collection is undergoing a major transformation that will make the garden more immersive. We are blurring the sidewalk boundaries around the conifer garden and planting portions of our collection across the path so that guests can walk through the collection easier. We hope that if guests are surrounded by the collection, they will be more likely to take a closer look. The dwarf conifer collection in Atlanta is also becoming the gateway garden to our brand new Skyline Garden that will be opening in May 2017. ABG hired two new employees in 2016 that are sure to make a huge impact on our collection. Scott McMahan was hired as Manager of International Plant Exploration and has already completed an exploration trip to Vietnam, Taiwan and China. Tiffany Jones was hired in the record keeping department and has been adding unaccessioned older plants that are planted in both locations officially to our collections. We updated our faded signage in the garden to new signs and placed our ACS Reference Garden sign in a much more prominent place in the garden. I am attaching a copy of our 2016 additions to the conifer collection from Atlanta and Gainesville to this summary. (Note – over 260 conifers). (Atlanta Botanical Garden)

We expanded the conifer collection by 163 accessioned plants; created and installed 163 new signs; expanding GIS data continuously. (Baker Arboretum, Bowling Green KY).

As noted earlier, we planted some 32 conifers (mostly dwarf conifers) into our ETSU Dwarf Conifer Garden. Our Dwarf Conifer Garden collection had been moved in 2013 due to circumstances beyond our control and subsequently suffered high losses of plants. In the years since that move, we have re-established our collection in a new and larger location across from the biology building and have gradually improved the collection, signage, and landscaping of this collection. This year we also drafted a new brochure for our Dwarf Conifer Garden, with map and species list. We plan to publish that brochure in 2017. (East Tennessee State University Arboretum, Johnson City TN).

We planted 27 new conifers this year (about 10 different cultivars) including several in a new native plant garden. (Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Richmond VA).

During 2016 we increased the ACS Reference Garden by 20 individual conifers (13 different taxa). There was also a big push by our Horticulturist (Carl Simmons) to clean up plant records and GPS most of the inventory. (Norfolk Botanical Garden, Norfolk VA).

We are in the process of making our collection database available on-line with an interactive gps map. (University of Tennessee Gardens, Knoxville TN).

Publicity/In-Kind Gifts or Grants

The presence of a conifer collection here has prompted donations of additional conifers. (Gardens of the Big Bend, UF, Quincy FL).
We sent out press releases when we received our Reference Garden status. We also posted it on Facebook and our website. (Lockerly Arboretum, Milledgeville GA).
The Conifer Garden was featured in the May 2016 edition of Virginia Gardener and the Fall 2016 edition of Conifer Quarterly. (Reynolds Community College, Goochland VA).
We received a large donation of conifers from Iseli Nursery. (State Botanical Garden of GA, Athens GA).

Conifers and Crazy Weather

We are very fortunate at the Atlanta Botanical Garden to have a top class irrigation system that minimized the effects of the drought. We did lose a few conifers this year but we are attributing those losses to other factors. We actually lost a few to over watering (Thujas and a pine) as well as shading out (a Cryptomeria) and some damage due to construction truck exhaust (an Abies). We had several huge new Cryptomeria suffer during establishment in the new gardens due to lack of water. We had an Amentotaxus and some junipers shine through the drought in the dwarf conifer collection. (Atlanta Botanical Garden).

The coastal area of Georgia was spared by the drought that affected much of the rest of the Southeast region. We did sustain much wind damage due to Hurricane Matthew. Many mature specimens were uprooted, especially in the genus Cupressus. (Armstrong State University Arboretum Conifer Garden, Savannah GA).

Taxodium distichum ‘Peve Yellow’ at Moore Farms Botanical Garden (Photo by Leanne Kenealy)


I find this hard to answer accurately since we were able to have consistent irrigation through the drought period because we pull our irrigation water from a lake on our property that is stocked by our runoff. The losses we did have this year were recently planted specimens that were not yet fully established. I would say Picea is the genus that has been most likely to suddenly die during extreme hot and dry spells. Juniperus virginiana, Chamaecyparis obtusa and Cryptomeria all tend to be very reliable and hardy for us. (Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Richmond VA).

We lost a few Cedrus deodara cultivars due to lack of watering when they were newly planted. We lost Cryptomeria ‘Twinkle Toes’ due to ant pressure. It would make a great container plant but hard for us to keep in the ground. It’s too dense and needs to be thinned. When it rained, the ants would build their nest in it every time. Our biggest problem was Hurricane Matthew. We lost a few Juniperus virginiana and newly planted Cryptomeria japonica and Pinus glabra. We had to do a lot of staking of other conifers. (Moore Farms Botanical Garden, Lake City SC).

The drought was not severe in our area. I do not attribute any damage to it. We did have something else happen that was weather related, however. It appears that this year’s early spring followed by an extended cold and wet period caused pollination failure in our entire ginkgo grove (300+ trees). No ginkgo seeds were produced, something I do not recall happening previously. The timing was particularly unfortunate because the renowned botanist, Peter Crane, initiated a study project on our ginkgo grove in fall 2016 to examine sex expression in ginkgo. Hopefully, spring 2017 will be kinder to him and our ginkgos. (State Arboretum of VA, Boyce VA).

Several of our Picea selections did not tolerate the extended period of high heat (well into the 90s) very well and we lost several. The Cedrus selections all thrived beautifully as did Juniperus, particularly J. scopulorum ‘Tolleson’s Weeping Blue’ (very impressed with its performance and this plant needs to be promoted more in the South). (University of Tennessee Gardens, Knoxville TN).

We are located in the coastal region of VA and did not experience the droughts of the deep SE USA. However, we received an abnormally high rainfall this past year. We’ve had prolonged rain events that have dropped substantial amounts of rain. In one 72 hour period we received 9.9″ of rainfall.

Norfolk’s normal rainfall average is 45.39″. As of this writing, we’ve received 68.46″. That’s 23″ above normal. Some effects are immediate but other more established conifers may take a few years to show signs of stress. Norfolk Botanical Garden is a peninsula located on Lake Whitehurst. We already have a higher than normal water table and the additional rainfall is causing more erosion along the lake banks and prolonged standing water within the Garden. In the ACS Reference Garden, we’ve noticed 2 periods of prolonged (multiple days) standing water. There is a bermed section where we showcase dwarf conifers that is affected. As a result, we lost a few due to the excessive water. We are looking at ways to elevate our dwarf conifer collection (i.e., place them in containers and nestle those containers within the bed). (Norfolk Botanical Garden, Norfolk VA).

Barbie Colvin is the SER Reference Garden Coordinator. Excerpt from the March 2017 Southeastern Conifer Quarterly. Gain access to archives of past newsletters and the National Conifer Quarterly by becoming a member of the American Conifer Society.

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