News » Cover Stories

Green Thumb Alert - Natural by Design

Garvan Gardens extols Arkansas's landscape-and suggests how you can too, at home


Okay. Maybe you don't have a couple of hundred acres surrounded on three sides by lake, or a multi-million-dollar budget. And, maybe you're not a landscape architect. Never mind. If you harbor the seed of an interest in gardening, and have a bit of dirt to play in, the University of Arkansas has a new classroom for you. It's a beauty. Since its opening three years ago, Garvan Woodland Gardens has thrilled visitors with its style and serenity. Travel magazines have spread the word, exclaiming how the garden integrates spectacular botanical design into the familiar landscape of Arkansas's Ouachita Mountains. Last year, more than 70,000 people wandered through Garvan Gardens - almost half of them from out-of-state. By 2006, the guest count is expected to double. Visitors see as much as they can absorb. For some, perhaps a few of the tuxedoed groomsmen attending one of the many weddings held at the garden, the view between the parking lot and the pavilion may be little more than a pleasant green blur. But most visitors will take in more. A romantic soul might notice the artful placement of stone. An experienced gardener might watch with empathy as an elderly volunteer, having bent over a flower bed, takes her time to rise. A horticulturalist might be impressed by the dozens of varieties of roses, a bird lover by the song of a warbler. A couple from Japan, wandering into the exquisite "Garden of the Pine Wind," might be startled by its Asian sensibility. The visitor who has most to gain, however, is the student: the home gardener or would-be gardener who strolls with an eye and a mind wide open. Wittingly or not, that person will draw from the garden whatever he or she has come to learn. The lesson might come unexpectedly, with the glimpse of a fern placed just so, the impact of hundreds of plants of a kind dramatically massed together, the quality workmanship that is a distinguishing feature of the garden. Bob Byers likes to watch visitors as they encounter Garvan Gardens. He hopes that, in one way or another, whatever delights or inspires them, they will find a way to take home. The soft-spoken university professor has been the garden's resident landscape architect since 1994 - years before it opened to the public. He moved to Hot Springs from Fayetteville shortly after the death of the garden's founder, Verna Cook Garvan, who had bequeathed it to the University of Arkansas School of Architecture. The garden, private for nearly 50 years, was now to be shared with the public. Byers' task was to create a world-class botanical garden while preserving the natural setting, as Garvan herself had tried to do. It was - and remains - an immense task, but not a daunting one. Byers, who had worked in the private sector before coming to the university, relied on the principles of his profession. "I didn't approach this project any differently," he explained, "than I would approach designing somebody's back yard." Any gardener can learn from those principles. For a gardener in western Arkansas, there may be no better place to see them expressed than in this tree-shaded peninsula on busy Lake Hamilton. Here, parsed and paraphrased, are some of the design rules Byers pointed out during a mile-and-a-half stroll through Garvan Gardens. Mike Brown, the garden's superintendent, who oversees construction, planting and maintenance, adds more hands-on advice. 1. CONSIDER THYSELF. The Welcome Center, with its native stone, timber and glass, announces at the front door that this is a place that knows itself. The gift shop and staff offices are here, and it is here that Byers explains how Garvan Gardens determined its mission - and from that, its identity. Byers explains that few of America's botanical gardens are situated in woodlands. There is Boston's tiny Garden in the Woods, with just 45 acres, and, at the other extreme, spanning thousands of acres, are the immense Calloway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga. An uplands garden, such as Verna Garvan preserved, is a rare thing indeed. It is rumored that shortly before her death, she refused an offer of $20 million for the prime lakefront property. Most botanical gardens are located in cities, and therefore tend to be small. Most of those outside of cities occupy sites that were cleared for plantations. On inheriting stewardship of this remarkable property, then, Byers and the other planners of Garvan Gardens had to ask the same question that home gardeners should: "What do we want this garden to be?" As with most residential gardens, the answer at Garvan Gardens was multiple. With its woodland atmosphere, Garvan Gardens would fill a unique niche among botanical gardens in the nation. It would be a teaching site and a sanctuary for birds. It would be a marriage of art and nature. One priority, though, would have to trump all the rest. If the garden was to thrive, Byers says, "We realized that the first client we had to serve was the tourist." The garden could not just be peaceful. It would have to have some drama, or "punch." Before turning a shovel, home gardeners should also reflect on what type of garden suits them. They should consider how they live and what uses various areas around the house might serve. Should there be a place for pets? An area for entertaining? A basketball hoop? A vegetable garden? A corner for meditation? Byers recommends developing a garden library, as Verna Garvan did, and studying magazines and plant catalogs. But more important than that, he says, is to "Get out." Hike in Hot Springs National Park, and in Arkansas's national forests. Visit some of Arkansas's rivers. Notice how nature gardens. Brown agrees. "Look closely at things you like," he says. "Take photos of details. Clip pictures from magazines and save them. Start a scrapbook. Keep it for reference." Stepping from the Welcome Center into the garden, one does not see - but senses - its magnitude. Brown is reassuring. "There is nothing done here that can't be done on a smaller scale at your own house. 2. CONSIDER THY SITE. It is said that when Verna Garvan laid out her garden's first trails, she walked in front of the bulldozer, ordering its driver around trees, blazing exactly the path that she wanted. She could do that because she knew her property well. "She did such a good job with the trails," says Byers, "that there was little we had to change." When the university took over, following Garvan's death, Byers and his team conducted a scientific analysis of the site. They drew up a topographic map and cataloged existing plants. They tested the soil, which was, by and large, poor. And, like all other gardeners, they spent a lot of time trying to understand what Byers calls "the drainage issues." (The downside of watering at Garvan Gardens is that there is so much of it to do, requiring pumps and miles of piping. The upside is the lake. Getting water is not a problem.) As in many Arkansas gardens, especially in the state's western half, trees and the shade they cast were a major factor for planners to consider. But unlike many gardeners confronted with that situation, Byers did not feel himself limited to hostas and a sprinkling of impatiens. "Most of the plant books, until about the past 10 years," he says, "were written by people in the northeast. The temperature down here and the light are much more intense, and our growing season is generally longer in this part of the country. As a result, we find that many plants that are listed as needing sun will usually tolerate - or even welcome - some shade." Indeed, while the garden does have open, sunny spaces that burst with summer colors, its character is comfortably dappled. For gardeners blessed with big oaks, but frustrated by their shade, this is a good place to come and see how the experts exploit that situation. A few paces into the garden, the path divides. To the left, beds of roses, cannas, lilies and other perennials beckon. But something subtle in the design leads down and into the softer light at left. 3. ESTABLISH A FOCAL POINT Visitors drawn this way find themselves winding into the garden's set piece, the stunning Garden of the Pine Wind. This Asian garden was the first major project the university undertook. It hired David Slawson, a landscape architect from Ohio, to create something dramatic, which he did. Slawson holds additional degrees in Oriental art and philosophy, and his creation reflects that background. Byers says Slawson wanted, "to express the beauty of nature in a miniaturized form," and that, "using very structured rules, of course, and classical Japanese principles," he sought "to show what's spectacular about the typical." Spectacular it is, but it hardly seems miniaturized. Few home gardeners will haul in 1,750 tons of stone, as Slawson did for this spectacular garden. Or create a 12-foot waterfall, with a hidden path behind it. Or build anything as massive or beautiful as Slawson's Full Moon Bridge. Still, everyone who comes here can learn from Slawson's approach. "It's the Asian concept of man in nature," says Byers, "instead of the idea of man over nature, which is the philosophy of the West." 4. CREATE A MASTER PLAN Few home gardeners can see a project 10 years into the future, let alone 100 years, such as Byers and his team are attempting to do at Garvan Gardens. But Byers insists that any garden should start with a master plan. Developing one for Garvan Gardens took a full two years. Yet the process was essentially no different than the approach that a landscape architect would use for a home. Looking at a map of what existed - the topography, plants, and structures - the team outlined certain spaces it wanted: specialized gardens, overlooks, restrooms, etc. Viewing these as "a series of big outdoor rooms," the designers then paid close attention to the rooms' "walls, floors and ceilings- the plantings, structures and the conduits that connect one with another. "The design is organic and naturalistic," he says, "which is what Mrs. Garvan wanted." But, he adds, "if you were designing around a Georgian house, you'd want a more formal, manipulated design." However formal or informal the design, Byers stresses that it should not feel forced. He wants visitors to Garvan Gardens to enjoy it without ever sensing that they are being controlled by the design. "One of the core principles of landscape architecture is that, instead of forcing people to do or not do something, the design should allow them to do it safely, without damage to the facility." Most visitors probably don't notice such subtleties, and that's something Byers wants, too. It's part of the artistry here that, after years of planning and the investment of millions of dollars and countless hours of labor, the garden has a feel that's as natural as the surrounding mountains. That effect is entirely a result of a plan that began by honoring what nature has already accomplished. "You can manipulate," Byers says, "but it makes a lot more sense just to let the property be what it wants to be." Brown understands the urge many gardeners feel to replicate some of what they see here. "People come out, they take a big look around, and they ask, 'How can I relate this to my house?'" he says. "The answer is, 'Take it piece by piece. Take pictures, say of one little turn, or a cove, and transfer that to your yard. Plan it. Divide your plan into stages. And keep it natural.'" 5. BE REALISTIC Here, everything is taken in stages. The staff realizes that Garvan Gardens, like all gardens - and like plants themselves - will literally take time to grow. A project this immense cannot be accomplished all at once, or even stay accomplished, and neither can gardens at home. Byers coordinates a team that has to consider, among other things, the demands of catering to tourists, the garden's long-term commitment to quality, budgetary constraints, and the maintenance required for every decision that's made. A family planning a garden forms a similar team. One member may be all about vegetables, while another wants a mini-preserve that will attract birds and butterflies. Like the Garvan team, the family planners will also have to consider limits on money and time for maintenance. If we do this, someone should ask, will we have money for that? Is this a garden the whole family will enjoy? If we plant all that, who's going to water and weed it? Byers thinks such discussions will create stronger, more interesting, and more sustainable design. "In our case," he says, "we had all these people with all these concerns working together, and we ended up with a really great result." But here, as in most people's gardens, progress comes a step at a time. It's a practical, affordable approach. It lets the gardeners enjoy each stage of the development. It allows for changes in the plan, should the need - or a better idea - become apparent along the way. Brown, the garden superintendent, says it's his job to be realistic. Although the garden operates on a budget of approximately $1.5 million, Brown bases his advice for homeowners on what he learned in the retail landscape business. "The rule is, if you had no interest other than monetary, people who spend about 12 to 15 percent of the cost of their houses on landscaping will recover that investment on resale. "Of course, if you love gardening or never plan to move, the sky's the limit - but don't expect to recover all of what you spend." 6. DO IT WELL There are three bridges at Garvan Gardens. Each cost a lot to build, especially the Full Moon Bridge. "That cost a chunk," Brown says. "But if we'd put up a wooden bridge, we'd have missed one of our best opportunities. It's a matter of priorities." The commitment to build the Full Moon Bridge, with its tons of expertly laid stone, meant that other wishes would have to wait. It also meant, however, that Garvan Gardens would get a structure worthy of the stature to which it aspires. "That was Mrs. Garvan's view too," Byers says. "If you can't do it right, don't do it." Brown advises home gardeners, as well, to "always pick people you like to work with and surround yourself with good people." In his case that means good staffers and volunteers, good nurserymen and good tradespeople, even though some of the latter group are getting harder to find. He notes that some arts that were once taken for granted are now close to being lost. "The man who did the stonework on the Chinese bridge is 68 years old," he says. "In fact, most of our highly skilled folks are reaching retirement age." Search out craftsmen who do quality work, even if they charge more, Brown says. "The key is, whatever you do, do it well. Don't take that money and spread it amongst 10 other projects." Consider that the lesson of the Full Moon Bridge. 7. GROW WITH YOUR GARDEN So now you've powwowed and drawn up a plan. You've determined a focal point, and come to terms with the budget and maintenance. You're developing a garden, however slowly, that honors the concept of quality. Everything is going as planned. Get ready for your plans to change - or, more precisely, for them to grow, as well. There will be pests you never expected, too much rain at times, and too little. The perfect plant in the perfect spot will wither or just fail to thrive. As challenges have shaped you, challenges will shape your garden. So too opportunities. In the next few years, Garvan Gardens will add a chapel, a vegetable garden and a special garden for children. The garden is already especially welcoming to children. All fifth-grade classes from any Arkansas school are admitted free, along with their chaperones. "It's a chance for them to get into nature," Byers says. "It's odd and kind of sad that so many kids don't get to do that much anymore. Even on vacation, so often they go to theme parks - to places like Disney World." The one-acre "adventure garden" will offer simpler delights, such as a stream with a crawdad hole, stepping stones and fallen-log bridge, a waterfall and a tree house with a view of the surrounding woods. Such additions are the product of careful planning. But Byers remains ready to change if something's not ready. He thinks gardeners have got to experiment. "Lots of times we say, 'Let's try it and see what happens.' That's what Mrs. Garvan did." She understood that a garden teaches by success and failure. To help improve their success rate, gardeners can sign up for some of the courses taught at Garvan Gardens, many by popular experts such as Janet Carson and P. Allen Smith. To get the courage to begin, they can heed Brown's advice to the effect that, "If you love what you're trying to do, you'll probably do a better job than if you hired it out." And when something doesn't quite work out, and the effect is far from Garvanesque, they can console themselves with these words of experience from Byers: "Janet Carson says that if you haven't lost a plant, you're not really a gardener. Around here, we say that you're not really a gardener if you haven't also had to move a plant." Garvan Gardens is located at 550 Arkridge Road, Hot Springs. Phone 1-800-366-4664. Information on classes and events at:

Add a comment