Stock Beds at Garden in the Woods
Reinventing the historic stock beds at Garden in the Woods
by Dan Jaffe
If you had walked into what is now the meadow garden in the 1950s, you would likely have seen Will Curtis working with a slew of potted plants that he was testing for use in his garden. Before the formation of Garden in the Woods, the production center of this land was located in what is now the meadow. Soon after the creation of Garden in the Woods, growing beds were built to supply the Garden (and eventually the retail area) with the plant material necessary to keep the gardens filled.
The area initially contained a mix of test beds for seed grown plants as well as a section used for growing potted plants. Seed production was accomplished in what is now the Edible Garden and the sitting area (in front of the woodland stage) was used for potted plants. By the time Bill Brumback left the position of propagator (he is now Conservation Director at New England Wild Flower Society), the growing beds had been increased to an area that provided enough plants to not only keep the horticulture staff supplied, but enough to sell to the public as well.
When Bill Cullina arrived at New England Wild Flower Society, he inherited the growing beds area which he built into true “stock beds”. He built/repaired many of the beds and filled them with a mix of composted loam and sand (with a touch of lime to adjust the pH). The tree canopy was thinned out to provide the bright indirect light most beneficial to many woodland plants. The beds were set on a three-year rotation where sections of the beds were periodically divided, sold off, and replanted. Between Bill Cullina’s time and the current day, the stock beds fell into disuse. While some of the plants have persisted, others have been choked out by their more aggressive neighbors, and many have declined due to a closing of the above tree canopy and the subsequent lack of light.
Present day finds Garden in the Woods in a position to give the stock beds the attention they need. The general plan for the future use of the stock beds involves a complete revamping of the area. This will be accomplished in five steps, the first of which is completed and the second of which we are currently engaged.
The first step in the rebirth of the stock beds was a general purpose weeding. This included all the plants which had worked their way into the gardens of their own accord and have no potential for transplantation to other parts of the Garden. Plants such as the Asian dayflower, Commelina communis, and the smartweeds (Persicaria spp.) are included in this group. After the initial weeding, all efforts will be taken to weed the beds on a regular basis, with a major weeding every spring (as well as regular topdressing with compost). With this in mind the task of weeding should never be allowed to grow (pun intended) into such a major task.
The second step in the process entails the removal of non-target species. This will require the removal of those plants that either have moved into the beds on their own (Yes, I’m thinking of you Actaea racemosa), or those plants which have been planted in the beds in the past that we don’t necessarily need to be propagating. A large portion of this will be dependent on our progressing definition of the nativity of plants based on an ecoregion approach. While these plants will be removed from the beds, they are hardly weeds. Many of them will be planted in the Garden or directly around the stock beds themselves. Also included in the list of non-target species are some of the trees in the beds. While we love the trees at the Garden, the stock beds have become so shaded that many of the delicate Cypripediums, Trilliums, and other species have begun to decline due to a lack of light. In order to provide the necessary light to bring the stock beds back into their full potential a large scale tree removal/thinning is underway. With the increase in irradiance levels in the stock beds, we can expect to see a great increase in the growth potential of the beds.
Tree Specialists, Inc. was contracted to remove those trees too large for us to be able to take down safely. With the aid of their equipment and professional know-how, they were able to take down enough trees to introduce much more light to the stock beds than they have seen in at least three years. In an effort to get the most work out of our limited budget, the Tree Specialists’ crew simply dropped all the trees we had marked and left them in place for us to clear. This allowed us not only to get the most out of our budget, but also to specifically set aside the woody material for a variety of uses. Nate McCullin (the Society’s newest horticulturist) is creating an interactive area in which he will be putting some of the largest trunk pieces to use (look for more on this in the future). Much of the other wood will be used for the construction of edge runnings and small fences to distinguish trails from gardens. Still more of the smaller pieces will be chipped and used in the Idea Garden as mulch.
Once the preparation of the stock bed’s area is completed, a re-design of the stock beds layout will be initiated. While most of the plants within the stock beds will continue to be grown in the area, there are very few which will be staying in their current locations. Some plants would benefit from a brighter spot, while others can be moved back into shadier beds with little to no harm to the plants health. With the removal of non-target species, there will be quite a few open beds which can be filled with new plants which were not grown in the beds previously. There are a number of beds with five or six different plants growing within them, in some cases all belonging to the same genus. Once rearrangement is complete, each species will have an entire bed (or close to it) designated to that one plant species.
Throughout the entire process it cannot be forgotten that these stock beds are sitting in the middle of a botanical garden and should be aesthetically pleasing as well as useful for propagation. Small garden patches interspersed around the stock beds (many comprised of material divided from within the beds themselves) will be installed. The goal of this portion of the project is to make the stock beds area into a section which people will want to visit for its beauty as well as its practicality.
The final, and likely most important step in the process, will be the use of the stock beds for what they were originally meant for, namely propagation. This will mean divisions, notching, rooting, and so forth with the goal of increasing the usable stock of those plants in high demand, or which are best propagated vegetatively instead of by seed. The beds will also serve as a source for seeds for some species where finding enough wild seed can be a challenge. Keep your eyes open in this section of the Garden as many changes are coming in the future.