It’s hard today to picture Colonial Avenue without the colorful flowerbeds at the Community Arboretum at Virginia Western lining the road. There was a time, though, when those two-acres were nothing but a grassy knoll.
May 2018 marked the 25th anniversary of the arboretum, which was designed to serve both horticulture students and the wider Roanoke community as a place to understand “botanical relationships, ecological processes and sustainable horticulture practices,” according to its mission statement.
Lee Hipp, who served as director of the horticulture department from 1978 to 2010, gives much of the credit for the arboretum’s existence to his students. In the early 1980s, Hipp regularly led the members of Virginia Western’s newly formed horticulture club on field trips to first-rate gardens around the Mid-Atlantic, like the Duke Gardens and The United States National Arboretum.
“The students, after seeing these gardens, just naturally asked the question, ‘Why don’t we have a public educational garden in the Roanoke area?’ ” Hipp recalls. “I thought that was a good question and one that needed addressing.”
Hipp had also followed the progress of the public garden at North Carolina State University, his alma matter, which was created by famed horticulturist J.C. Raulston in the mid 1970s. “He transformed that 10 acres into an incredible garden which now is internationally acclaimed,” Hipp says. “It was a motivation to me to make sure it could happen for Roanoke.”
Hipp shepherded an exploratory committee of students and later one with horticulturists and other influencers from the Roanoke Valley to look at creating an arboretum on the campus. Hipp also approached Virginia Western’s president for permission.
“There wouldn’t be a garden out there if it wasn’t for Charles Downs, who had the foresight to approve this idea,” Hipp says. “He could have easily said, ‘No, we can’t afford that’ or ‘The maintenance will be too high.’ ”
After Downs gave a thumb’s up, Hipp had to get the green light from the Virginia Western Community College Local Advisory Board. “They approved the idea to let us use that two acres provided we raise the money to build it, plant it and take care of it,” he says.
In 1984, Selena Pedersen, one of Hipp’s students, donated $10,000 to have the arboretum shade garden named in honor of her mother, Emille Knight Stone. She was the project’s first donor.
That money allowed Hipp to hire Robert McDuffie, landscape architect and associate professor emeritus of horticulture at Virginia Tech, to create a conceptual master plan, which Hipp used to show prospective donors what he envisioned.
“I had my little dog-and-pony show I took around to dozens of organizations to tell them about what we hoped to do,” Hipp says. “Most of them ended up getting on board and making financial contributions.”
Students and members of the community worked for nearly a decade to cobble together $150,000 to build the arboretum. “It all came together,” Hipp says. “There was higher power watching over it. I promise you.”
Getting to know the arboretum
The Community Arboretum at Virginia Western is free and open to the public daily, from sunrise to sunset. More than 700 plant species divided into 11 unique collections can be found here.
Clark BeCraft, who took over as coordinator of Virginia Western’s horticulture department and the arboretum in 2014, didn’t hesitate when asked to name his favorite section of the collections. BeCraft pointed to the Children’s Garden, which offers a plan “zoo” that’s home to 70 different plants with animal names. When giving tours of the garden to children, volunteers will frequently organize a scavenger hunt where kids identify plants like the elephant ear, the ostrich fern and zebra grass. Two hundred yews make up a children’s maze, which can keep preschoolers entertained for a solid hour. BeCraft’s own two small children enjoy visiting the goldfish in this garden’s pond. “They love coming to dad’s work,” he says.
Tonya Harper, a Master Gardener who volunteers at the arboretum for several hours each week, is drawn to the center of garden.
“What I really love the most are the trees. Especially the River Birch,” she says, gesturing to the white trees which ring a grassy ellipse. “I think they’re a focal point.”
The Sensory Garden is a point of pride for Anne Piedmont, who sits on the advisory council for the arboretum. This garden is named in honor of Nora Downing Wright, who enjoyed the arboretum in her 90s, even after macular degeneration caused her to lose her vision on top of the hearing impairment she had coped with for most of her life. Accessible to those in wheelchairs, the garden is designed to stimulate all of the senses. Visitors can touch the soft leaves of the lamb’s ear plants, listen to the sounds of water bubbling in the fountain and smell strategically placed herbs.
The arboretum’s newest addition is the City Garden, which was dedicated in 2013 and designed to showcase solutions to common problems urban homeowners face, such as sloping lawns and limited space. “People can take ideas from it to use,” says Piedmont.
The arboretum’s 11 collections stay in tip-top shape because of the efforts of about 25 volunteers, many of them Master Gardeners like Harper. In 2017, volunteers logged about 1,000 hours of work, according to BeCraft.
“What they do for us is very valuable,” he says. “There’s no way we could pay someone to come in and do all they do and stay afloat financially.”
While the arboretum was designed for the community, Virginia Western horticulture students certainly benefit from having it on campus. They can often be found in the gardens, which are used as living laboratories. Students who want to earn a Horticulture Technology Career Studies Certificate must complete a 75-hour internship that’s spent working in the gardens or the greenhouse.
“It’s definitely used as a learning tool,” BeCraft says.
The next 25 years
When BeCraft meets new people and they hear about his job, they’ll often share an arboretum story. Maybe they attended a lovely, intimate wedding in the gazebo or took their prom pictures in the Conifer Garden. Other times, they’ll mention enjoying the flowerbeds while driving down Colonial Avenue.
In those cases, BeCraft asks whether they’ve seen the rest of the two-acre garden? “They’ll say, ‘What? There’s more than those flowers?’ ” he says, gently shaking his head.
To make sure everyone is aware of all the arboretum has to offer, BeCraft now sets up booths at garden events around town, like the Greater Roanoke Home and Garden Show and the Buchanan Garden Festival. “We want to let people know that we’re a whole two acres of plant collections and that we offer wonderful educational opportunities,” he says.
Recently, members of the Arboretum’s advisory council have had discussions about how both the majority of the Arboretum supporters and the volunteer staff are retired. Many of these folks became passionate about the arboretum when it was first being built.
A new generation of arboretum supporters need to be recruited.
“One of my goals for the future is to involve more young professionals and families in the arboretum,” BeCraft says. “The way to do that is to have more educational opportunities for them and more activities for children.”
How to help the Arboretum
The Community Arboretum’s day-to-day operational expenses are supported in part by its popular plant sales. Horticulture students and members of the volunteer staff grow many of the plants sold.
- Perennial Sale: early April
- Vegetable and annual sale: late April
- Fall accents, perennial and pansy sale: late September
- Poinsettia sale: early December
Support also comes from the Community Arboretum Fund at the Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation. Donors receive early-bird access to plant sales, discounts on seminars, workshops and the annual garden tour, and a newsletter.
To learn more about how you can support the Community Arboretum Fund, go to virginiawestern.edu/arboretum or call (540) 857-6388.