Master planning ensures the beautiful functionality of the JC Raulston Arboretum – and continually reaffirms the unique prescience of its namesake.
In 1975, when Dr. James Chester “J.C.” Raulston joined the horticultural science faculty at N.C. State University, he didn’t yet have a master plan to create the university arboretum that would someday bear his name.
But it wasn’t too long before he had one. By fall 1976, he had enlisted the assistance of Fielding Scarborough, an NC State landscape architecture graduate student, in coming up with just such a plan, a guide for building the arboretum. It provided an overview for what an eight-acre portion of the Research Farm Unit 4 on Beryl Road could (and ultimately would) become: a place for researching new plants, an outdoor classroom for teaching horticulture classes, a nursery industry outreach resource for new landscape plants and a gorgeous garden to attract visitors from far and near.
“When you build a botanical garden or arboretum, the correct way to do it is to develop a master plan based on a mission statement and then move to implement that plan – usually starting with infrastructure (i.e., buildings), then moving on to plants,” says Bryce Lane, the retired Horticultural Science Department Alumni Distinguished Professor who, from July through December of this year, served his second stint as an interim director of the arboretum in NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“But we basically built this place backwards – no buildings, no infrastructure,” Lane says. “J.C. started with plants, retrofitted old buildings, then raised money for new buildings.”
It’s not surprising that the world-renowned horticulturist “started with plants,” given that Raulston’s expertise and passion guided the selection of the plants that came to make up what is now a 10.5-acre collection of more than 7,000 woody plants. (It’s the most diverse collection of woody plants in the United States, according to Raulston’s former student Tony Avent, owner of Raleigh’s Plant Delights Nursery.)
Budget constraints also played a role in the order of things, says Lane: “Plants came first, because those were free! J.C. was well connected to nurseries.”
“There was a method in everything J.C. did,” adds Lane, who came to the CALS Department of Horticultural Science in 1981 and worked with Raulston “on a number of fronts – teaching and then garden projects out here with students.”
Before Raulston’s December 1996 death in a car accident, he had been hard at work planning and raising funds to develop that infrastructure, starting with an education building. He had enlisted Andy Hensley, an architect and landscape designer, to draw up a plan that included the education center. (Hensley’s plan called for the center’s distinctive placement, with the Main Path along the Perennial Border transitioning onto the rooftop of the building.)
And in 2002, the Ruby C. McSwain Education Center had its official opening at the JC Raulston Arboretum (named in February 1997). It was and is an elegant facility with a rooftop garden and grotto fountain cascade – a teaching, office, conference and visitor center that seemingly disappears into the landscape, just as Raulston envisioned it would.
The continuation of his vision has been overseen by succeeding arb directors Lane (who first served as interim for the two years after Raulston’s death), Dr. Bob Lyons, Kim Powell, Dr. Denny Werner and Dr. Ted Bilderback, who retired this past summer. Equally important, the master planning process did not stop with Scarborough’s concepts that launched the evolution of the space from Research Farm Unit 4 to the Horticulture Field Laboratory to the NCSU Arboretum to JC Raulston Arboretum.
“Fielding Scarborough’s first master plan was more of a road map than a master plan per se,” says Lane. “Then came this incredible collaboration of faculty, nurserymen and landscape architects.”
He is referring to the “grassroots” Master Plan of 2007 and its 2013 update, both developed by a group that has continued to guide and contribute to the arboretum’s growth as new installations and improvements come into being. “The individuals and architects who drew it up in 2006 were all volunteers. Otherwise it would have cost tens of thousands of dollars,” says Lane. “It is phenomenal that they would take all the time to do it. And that volunteer group is still active.”
In 2006, the group – including garden and landscape professionals, CALS horticulture alumni, volunteers and other arb enthusiasts – came together and worked on the plan, a process that included extensive interviews with potential stakeholders, so that the plan would reflect all their ideas and needs.
The co-coordinators of that Master Plan Committee were Suzanne Edney and Harriet Bellerjeau. The two landscape design professionals had close ties to J.C. Raulston and to the arboretum as volunteers over the past 30 years, as they honed their businesses. They wished to give back to the place and person that gave them so much encouragement in their field.
Says Edney, “J.C.’s vision for building a place to display plants from all over the world began with securing an eight-acre portion of the research farm. His enlistment of faculty, students and members of the landscaping community was essentially the beginning of a community volunteer effort.
“By 1984 there was a healthy volunteer base assisting J.C. to implement and maintain his more complicated ideas for the gardens. The Tour Guide Program was also put into place,” Edney recalls.
In the early 2000s, after the completion of the McSwain Education Center complex and as the arboretum’s reputation grew among garden enthusiasts from around the world, it came time for a major overhaul of the total garden design, she says. “It wasn’t until 2006 that the all-volunteer Master Planning Committee was formed to take on the task of revisiting the design of the grounds with an added two acres.”
Edney says that, by then, the JCRA was in need of a master plan to continue a legacy that included “outreach to the public for education and pleasure, as well as continuing its vital role in researching plants from all over the world that would be suitable for introduction into the nursery trade of North Carolina and then into landscapes beautifying our state.”
Edney and Bellerjeau had helped to build the volunteer program, so “it was natural for us to think that we could assemble like-minded designers, landscape architects, artists and nurserymen who also had ties to the JCRA and wanted to give back.”
Their next step was to approach Werner, then the incoming director, to like the idea as well, she recalls. “He was very interested in seeing this grassroots effort succeed. With his blessing we spent the summer collecting and collating (with other volunteers) the needs, ideas and desires of the members, board, staff, students, volunteers and the public as to what they envisioned for the JCRA’s future.”
The committee had a mantra from Werner: “It’s all about the plants.”
“That was always foremost in our minds,” says Edney. “We, as designers, wanted to present the exciting plant collection in a beautiful and fully accessible manner – accessible to the public, as well as the staff and volunteers for maintenance. So a very broad, spacial, conceptual planning approach was taken, creating areas that could be developed over time.
“We are now in an implementation stage that will continue for years. As priorities are identified, the Master Plan Committee has been designing the details for specialty areas,” she says. “We have also encouraged invitations to previous graduates from NC State, hoping they become involved in the designing of specific areas.”
Overseeing the ongoing implementation of the grassroots plan and its recent update is Mark Weathington, who was named in December as the new JCRA director, after serving as assistant director since 2007.
“Master planning enables us to be more strategic and less reactionary in our growth, which provides the opportunity to focus on the areas where we can be most effective,” Weathington says. “The 2007 plan set the tone and provided the priorities for the garden. It was quite conceptual in nature and provides the framework and flow for the 2013 update.”
Meanwhile, he says, “the newest plan builds on the 2007 one, fleshing out more details and applying what we have learned in the intervening years. The process has not changed a great deal in that time. The designers still meet with staff for several hours as a group once a week to refine the plan.”
Among the Master Plan projects and accomplishments: In 2007, the A.E. Finley Rooftop Terrace renovation, Scree Garden (loose-gravel-based) installation and pedestrian entrance improvement; in 2008, the Southwestern Garden renovation and expansion into the Xeric Garden (low-moisture-requiring plants), as well as an accessible central path installation along the main Perennial Border; in 2009, the Asian Valley expansion, first plantings in newly acquired land (Plantsman’s Woods) and Color Trials moved to newly acquired land; in 2010, the Japanese Garden renovation and Lath House (shade garden) construction; in 2011, the Monocot Garden; in 2012, the Plantsman’s Wood accessible path; and in 2013, the Dwarf Conifer beds and the paver path through Asian Valley.
Additionally, the JCRA houses the university’s first green roof, atop the McSwain Center, “which is a step or two above the typical green roof planting,” says Weathington.
“Our Scree Garden and Xeric Garden provide an environment that is quite different than the typical North Carolina garden, allowing us to grow a range of plants not typically seen in the area. The Lath House showcases some of the newest and most exciting plants at the JCRA, and the Japanese Garden is always a visitor favorite.”
Other recently completed projects include a facelift for the Bobby G. Wilder Visitor Center, accessible pathway through the Scree Garden, and the Southeast’s first crevice garden.
A consensus is that Raulston would have approved.
“J.C.’s vision was to diversify the American landscape. His plan to collect, grow, evaluate and distribute plants is still at the heart of what we do today,” says Weathington. “All of our newly created spaces allow us to grow and evaluate a wider diversity of material in ever more ornamental ways.
“I see what we do as a straight line trajectory from J.C.’s original vision. The trajectory has been steeply upward though. I think he would be amazed and delighted to see where the JCRA is now – collections, gardens, Extension and education programs.”
Says Edney, “J.C. liked change. He was always moving forward with new ideas. Implementation of new and better ways to display the diverse plants he brought in from all over the world for evaluation in a safe and accessible garden setting is what he strived for.”
Now, more Master Plan projects are afoot.
In the McSwain Education Center, Lane rolls out a Master Plan concept drawing of the arb and points to the current location for bedding plants. They were formerly in the big central area now known as the Great Lawn, an area for large-scale events, such as the Gala in the Garden, the JCRA’s annual fund-raising event. It is one of the “showcase areas” in the garden.
Another, the Finley-Nottingham Rose Garden, is now under construction, he says, due to be completed in spring 2015.
Weathington explains that the formality and structure of the new rose garden “will help anchor the southeast portion of the garden, which was added to the JCRA only a handful of years ago. It will also provide an opportunity to discuss how breeding goals change over time.”
Also planned is the Pavilion area, in the former rose garden space, to be used for weddings or other events. “It’s a naming opportunity. We’re waiting for a donor,” Lane says. Then next to be worked on will be the Beryl Road Pedestrian Entrance.
Chip Calloway, renowned landscape architect, is providing pro bono design of the updated Pedestrian Entrance, which is in the concept stage, Lane says. Another project in the early planning stages is the Edible Garden. Richard Hartlage, landscape designer and CALS horticultural science alumnus, has agreed (also pro bono) to design it.
The Edible Garden, an aesthetic approach to a food crop garden, “is a reflection of a new push, a garden that takes fruits and vegetables and incorporates them in a way that’s ornamental. Richard is very good at that,” says Lane.
Adds Lane, “Everything that’s being done here is working toward promoting gardening in this area. We have a children’s gardening program that is bringing children back into the garden. Parents are concerned that their kids get back outside. That’s essential to the future of horticulture.
“Within a 3-mile radius of this place, we have grad students and families from all corners of the Earth. The next few years we’re going to tap into making diverse groups feel part of this place.”
He also looks forward to the continued growth of the arb’s strong ties with the state nursery industries. “That relationship will grow,” he says, through efforts such as the Choice Plant Program, which identifies plants of merit to potential propagators.
“I can’t emphasize enough how one individual’s ideas have had such exponential impact,” he says. “J.C. brought plants here to see if they would grow in North Carolina and then invited nursery professionals to come and see the plants. Here is this public garden where people come to see this beautiful place that is responsible for many of the plants we can now buy.
“I’m excited about where this garden is poised to go in the future,” he says, and he encourages everyone “to become part of the plan, the garden, everything, by becoming a friend, a volunteer.
“What the Master Plan enables us to do is articulate what we’re about, so people can join in, the donor can give or the family can join. They can literally be part of this community.”
In a garden that is still evolving, “nothing is sacred,” he says. “This is about spaces, plants and people and what’s needed at a given time.
“Pieces of this puzzle have been ticked off: It’s dynamic, it’s fluid, it’s awesome!”
And it’s immeasurably valuable to the Horticultural Science Department, the college and the community.
“The JC Raulston Arboretum is the face of Horticultural Science and CALS,” says Dr. John Dole, head of the department.” To many people the JCRA is the most tangible way they interact with horticultural science and CALS. It brings horticulture to the general public and supports the landscape and nursery industries.”
Moreover, the arboretum supports many CALS instructors and courses, says Dole, “and its internship program has trained many students for work in public gardens, industry, academia and government. The JCRA is the source of much horticulture information to the general public through its educational programs, website and gardens. It helps the landscape and nursery industries by promoting great plants for people to grow.”
Adds Weathington, “The JCRA serves as a living laboratory for students and faculty, from not only horticultural science, but also forestry, plant biology, entomology and the College of Design. It gives students an opportunity for hands-on learning. It provides germplasm resources for our ornamental plant breeders and researchers. It also provides a public face for the department, where we can show the many facets of the work being done there.
“The JCRA is actively involved with the green industry, providing Extension help which supplements and supports the university’s Extension specialists and agents. The JCRA is also actively cultivating the next generation of horticulturists through a young but actively growing children and family education program.”
Lane also notes how the arb well serves the land-grant university mission: “First, in the teaching arena, this instantly became a living lab for many of the courses we teach in horticulture. It has enhanced the horticultural science undergraduate program in more ways than we could have imagined. Second, in research, the arboretum is in and of itself a scientific document. It is a library of genetic information to use in breeding programs. And third, it has become a public garden, an extension garden for plants programs.”
He credits the Master Plan group for that perfect fulfillment of the mission: “By virtue of the fact that they interviewed the stakeholders, all of that came about, because the three functions plus more were represented in the planning. That group’s being so thorough made sure research, teaching and extension all got covered. Because they didn’t leave a stone unturned!”
Weathington says, “The master plans have really been the blueprint for developing and guiding the growth of the JCRA. With the most recent plan and its update, we have renovated, changed or created new garden spaces for about a quarter of the arboretum. The master plan has enabled us to seek out in-kind donations, pro bono design and labor and major gifts.”
Says Dole, “The Master Plan is doing a wonderful job of making the JCRA easier to navigate for visitors and making it easier to host the many programs the JCRA has to offer. More importantly the JCRA is a beautiful place to spend time, and the Master Plan has made it even more so.
“The staff, volunteers and former directors of the JCRA have worked hard to make it a great garden and organization,” says Dole, “and the new director will have much to build upon.”
That new director, Weathington, says, “I see the JCRA as the center of horticulture in the Raleigh area and the Southeast. Our trajectory will continue upward with a robust education program, meaningful events, innovative gardens and vital Extension and green industry support.
“I think the direction our education programming is taking is incredibly exciting. The Raleigh metro area is the fastest-growing area in the country,” he says.
“Many of these newcomers, young and old, are looking to connect with the land. The JCRA provides that link.”
– Terri Leith