Reinventing the Formal Garden


The Lewis Ginter conservatory for exotic plants

by James A. Bacon

When a group of Richmond botanists, horticulturalists and interested citizens founded the Lewis-Ginter Botanical Garden in 1981, their vision was to plant formal, European-style gardens to rival the finest in the country. They succeeded in that goal beyond their expectations. Lewis Ginter is consistently rated as one of the Top 10 gardens in the United States. Of its 350,000 visitors in 2013, an estimated 20% to 30% came from outside the metropolitan region, making it the No. 2 visitor’s destination, after the Richmond International Raceway, in Henrico County.

President Frank Robinson, who joined the staff in 1992 and is planning to retire next year, could be forgiven for resting easy with that accomplishment. But he’s not. Society has changed over the past three decades, he says, and the organization has evolved along with it. The thrust of Lewis Ginter’s current $9 million fund-raising effort is not to build more formal landscaping worthy of coffee-table books, rather it represents a return to nature — or, more accurately, a reconciliation of urban development with nature.

The Streams of Stewardship initiative challenges expectations of what landscape design should be. Conventional Virginia tastes are heavily influenced by a heritage of gardens designed for French kings and English aristocrats from a very different era. But the challenges of 21st century America call for something new. The introduction of foreign ornamental plants and the voracious consumption of land by 20th- and 21st-century suburbs stresses Virginia’s natural environment, sterilizing the habitat for wildlife and polluting streams and rivers with fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. A new landscaping aesthetic can reverse some of the damage.

Lewis Ginter’s intention is to transform the 30 acres not dedicated to formal gardens on the 80-acre site with two goals in mind: to show how landscaping can clean creeks and streams polluted by urban run-off and to re-establish indigenous plants that support local wildlife. Plans call for replacing acres of formal grass lawn and large mulched beds with ornamental grasses and shrubs. A native plant garden will be established along a restored stream, and a woodland garden will provide natural filtration for excess nitrogen, phosphates and other algae-feeding nutrients flowing from a neighboring subdivision, a nearby golf course and Lewis-Ginter’s own property.

As Executive Director Shane Tippett puts it, Lewis Ginter wants to demonstrate that it is possible to meet a triple bottom line of creating beautiful places, restoring the environment, and doing so economically.

It’s not enough to show that such things can be done: The garden also wants to drive aesthetic and cultural change in the Richmond region, educating its 350,000 annual visitors, connecting with local landscapers and horticulturalists and reaching out to developers and home builders. In sum, the botanical gardens want to be a resource for the community.

Frank Robinson standing in the kind of tall grass that will replace acres of turf lawns.

Frank Robinson standing in the kind of tall grass that will replace acres of turf lawns.

The organization has largely fulfilled its core mission, says Robinson. “We knew we had to create very fine gardens to draw people here. And we had to generate earned income to support the enterprise.” And that it has done. The gardens are magnificent, and people are drawn year-round by a series of events: beautiful tulips in the springs, light displays at night, bonfires, jazz concerts, hot chocolate and the like. “Ultimately, it’s about the aesthetics. We had to do that to build the brand, the audience. We wouldn’t have been so successful if we’d started with a field of native grasses.”

The garden leadership began moving toward the new vision a decade ago, starting with a $1 million investment in a system that collected rainwater from building roofs and funneled it into two lakes on the property. Except for one year of severe drought, the property no longer needs county water. Avoiding the consumption of more than 7 million gallons a year saves Lewis Ginter hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in water bills and frees up county water capacity for someone else. The investment paid for itself in three or four years.

The 2007-2008 recession put the “Streams of Stewardship” fund-raising on hold but Richmond’s philanthropic community has revived to the point where Lewis Ginter is getting new commitments. Rather than waiting for the full $9 million to start, Robinson says, the garden is phasing in pieces of the plan as money comes available.

Meanwhile, the garden is taking an increasing leadership role in the community. It has invited to speak Lynden Miller, a nationally recognized garden designer, to Richmond, and Doug Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home,” author of a treatise on how home gardeners can restore indigenous species. Its Beautiful RVA program brings together tree lovers, gardeners and landscapers to share ideas and build enthusiasm for creating quality public places.

“We never wanted to become a monastic community,” says Robinson. “It’s a big city out there. We can impact so many people beyond this property.”

This is the first of a planned series on the Lewis-Ginter Botanical Garden to be published as time permits.

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7 responses to “Reinventing the Formal Garden

  1. Interesting how some folks use their wealth to establish things to benefit people and communities, to give back to people.

    Bill and Malinda Gates use their wealth to promote education and to help the less fortunate around the world, and the Koch Boys funnel their money secretly to benefit those who would essentially undermine and harm government they disagree with.

    Perhaps the Koch Boys also fund a garden somewhere and they’re getting a bad rap, eh?

    • The Koch brothers just gave $100 million to a hospital in New York.

      Of course, people started protesting.

      • fair is fair, indeed:

        New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell: $15 million
        M.D. Anderson Cancer Center: $25 million
        The Hospital for Special Surgery: $26 million
        Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center: $30 million
        Prostate Cancer Foundation: $41 million
        Deerfield Academy: $68 million
        Lincoln Center’s NY State Theater: $100 million
        Massachusetts Institute of Technology: $139 million

        Now tell me how much Gates has given to politics?

  2. I’m not sure how or why one jumps directly to the Koch brothers or the Gates’s philanthropy from a great article about LGBG, but back to the point: this article demonstrates the extraordinary value the Gardens offers to the region. There is great awareness on local resources for food these days. Now thanks to LGBG as the facilitator, there is greater awareness and more discussion about the importance of the local plants for our region and how to preserve our land and waterways. The folks there can teach us a lot about being good stewards of our natural resources. Planting and cultivating indigenous plants can bring balance back to our overall environment, including the soil, water, air quality, and the insect population (to name only the obvious). I’m glad you’re writing about this, Jim. It is in alignment with your focus on how to be good stewards of our environment. Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens is vital to our region. And of course, if you want to settle your spirit, there’s no better place to do so.

    • re: how to understand where funding comes from for things that benefit the community.

      I recommend reading the wiki account on the history and how the philanthropy came about to manifest itself as the Lewis-Ginter Botanical Garden which I DO COUNT as a jewel ….

      there are different ways that inherited money can be used and this is one way when you make your wealth – you share it back .. just as Bill and Malida Gates are and Warren Buffet and others… for the many philanthropic organizations which are the direct result of someone becoming a success and gaining wealth – then using it not in political ways to fund totally misleading political ads.

      I applaud the Lewis-Ginter Botanical Garden and others like it and herald it as a good way to share one’s success and wealth and I thank the family.

      Perhaps they will inspire others in Va to form a philanthropic organization ala Bill/Malinda Gates for K-12 education – to help fund more excellent schools – even private ones!

  3. The funny thing about the story of the Gardens is that there are in fact about five different stories of its genesis – depending on who is telling it. I’ve heard them all and each from someone invested in the story being told. The reality is that a sense of philanthropy can’t be forced. There are those, with or without great wealth, who are either philanthropically oriented and those who are not. We all know who falls into each of those categories. Wanting it to be different doesn’t make it so. I can’t worry about what others do with their money. I only have an obligation to worry about what I do with my own.

    I honestly think that one doesn’t need great wealth to make a substantial difference. If a viable plan is in place, thought leaders will be attracted to it and then will be mobilized. Having great wealth doesn’t presuppose that there is awareness or even understanding of a particular need or very deep issues related to the need. For the school situation in Virginia, there are so many programs tripping over themselves trying to address the problem – lots of redundancy. There are especially many, many programs, plans, etc. to address the problem of the Richmond Public Schools, which are the worst in the state. Although they are very good programs, they only deal with the surface problems. No one is having the HONEST conversation, bringing the key stakeholders to the table, to address the real problems and participate in the solutions. And no one stepping up to do that. I have an idea about how to address that, by the way. I’ve shared it with a local foundation, but this will take courage, time, and volunteer man-power.

    In the meantime, we are so fortunate to have LGBG, regardless of who started it, to lead the dialogue on the value of good stewardship of our natural resources. No other organization is positioned as well as they are to take this role. And who can’t be happy looking at one million tulips?!

  4. re: ” I honestly think that one doesn’t need great wealth to make a substantial difference. If a viable plan is in place, thought leaders will be attracted to it and then will be mobilized. Having great wealth doesn’t presuppose that there is awareness or even understanding of a particular need or very deep issues related to the need.”

    good works from good people stand for a lot – but a sustainable source of income is what is needed to make it permanent and institutional.

    I applaud folks for Gates, Buffet and Ginter.. for choosing to make sustainable contributions to their fellow men without rancor and without blame towards others as “takers” …

    we have a responsibility to help others morally in my view – as very few of us grew up without getting help from others. Our “family” should extend beyond our own blood-relatives. If we had more of that and less than the other, we’d be a better place.

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