We began a new project in December with our friends from the landscape architecture firm Studio Outside, master planning for the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens. The existing gardens are located on the University’s South Campus, which houses the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, and they are scattered across the site: formal perennial beds in front of college buildings, pocket-sized ornamental plantings, color trial gardens alongside athletic practice fields: here a patch of old growth protected woodland, there a collection of native plants selected for their appeal to butterflies and moths, and a constructed wetland hard by the College dairy barn. The challenge here is to create a sense of place, to find a way to help these distinct and disparate gardens cohere into something meaningful while still retaining their individual identities.
Which is how I found myself, on a cold and sullen grey morning a couple of weeks before Christmas, trailing along behind the gardens’ genial and very hands-on director while he gave us a tour of his collections. What was visible on the ground at that time of year was pretty minimal. Even the woody species had been knocked back to bare branches and stems, and the most prominent features in most of the beds were the plant tags.
But it soon became clear that what our host was seeing as we wandered along the frozen paths was different from what I could see. Where I saw bare earth and stubble he saw the new green shoots of bulbs, viburnums bursting into bloom, native bees collecting pollen from deep blue lupine flowers. The more we walked, the more I was struck by the gap between his perception of our surrounding and my own, and the more I was inspired by his vision. In the midst of this dark and difficult winter, facing an uncertain future, I am encouraged by the optimism of gardeners.