First impressions

Most homeowners have only a short pathway to work with between the street and their front door. Here at The North Carolina Arboretum, we have a half-mile of entry landscape. From the moment drivers begin their leisurely 20 mph journey down Frederick Law Olmsted Way, our plantings are intended to engage and excite them.

Designing a memorable entry experience for guests — whether at home or on the grounds of a larger property — requires thorough site analysis and careful planning. Having a great designer is also key, as we learned more than a year ago when we began building a new gatehouse. The project enabled us to reshape the visitor experience.

We hired landscape designer Tracey Traer, because we knew she would dig deeply to learn about both the organization and the site. She offered a design process that would be “responsive to natural systems and emphasize environmentally sound solutions” — just what we wanted. She’d taught at N.C. State for 18 years and had spent her share of time wandering through the Southern woodlands. And if you’ve ever heard her speak, you know that her passion for plants is contagious.

When I recently asked Tracey to describe how she’d approached the project, she said she wanted to “honor the place, the time and the heritage … to provide a strong sense of place, and to honor the influence of Frederick Law Olmsted.” She went on to describe how important it was for the planting plan to reinforce the Arboretum’s mission by cultivating connections between people and plants. She also tried to echo the architectural features of both gates and gatehouse.

With few exceptions, the plants she used are either native or are cultivars of native plants. Chosen for their flower or foliage color, they provide interest from February to October and then form a winter skeleton of evergreen contrasted by colorful branches of shrubs and grasses. Plants were also placed to enhance natural features; in her words, “creating a rhythm to move one into the entry experience.”

Another goal was to expose visitors to plants they would later see up close in the Arboretum’s gardens. Several front-gate plantings were reiterated at the gatehouse, creating a “conclusion” for the entry experience. The plantings around the gatehouse, she noted, also showcase “common plants used in uncommon ways.”

Like most projects, this one had its challenges, beginning with the soil. The native soils were extremely low in phosphorus, compacted and poorly drained, with the natural soil profile obliterated by road construction. Each of these issues posed an obstacle to nutrient uptake and plant establishment. Careful testing and close investigation were needed to develop a soil-amendment strategy. Tracey made it clear that a single amendment strategy wouldn’t work here — and rarely does on any site of this size, given the varying soil and plant types. In the end, she specified different rates of lime or organic material depending on the specific site and plant being used. We appreciated her extensive soil-preparation work, given its importance for ensuring long-lived landscape plantings.

Depending on your perspective, existing features of a site can present either a problem or an opportunity. Our boulder walls were both. For the most part, they reflect regional character. And while Tracey felt the ones near the gatehouse were overpowering, they still offered an excellent foil for plants. She used weeping Atlantic white cedar (planted on its side), Harry Lauder’s walking stick and a number of grasses, blue and willowy, to create a botanical “river” flowing over the boulders.

Four towering dawn redwoods planted in the 1920s by the USDA Forest Service still stand in the gatehouse parking area. While these plants posed a challenge in that they dominate one side of the site and create a lopsided feeling, they do provide a sense of history. Additional dawn redwoods, hollies and Atlantic white cedars were also planted in honor of the Forest Service’s early tree-collection efforts.

Speaking of notable plants, Tracey included the Princeton elm, one of several relatively new American elm cultivars demonstrating a high level of resistance to Dutch-elm disease. Here it was selected as a heritage tree and as a “reminder that some of our remarkable plants have been threatened and lost because of human activity.” Also included are American yellowwood, Southern catalpa and devil’s walking stick, all native trees that offer a wonderful show of flowers.

“Sungold” Saint Johnswort, though non-native, is a superb rounded form with softly arching branches, flowering from June to September. It’s used in this landscape both for its reputation as a good performer and for its contribution to the overall landscape design. This Hypericum has disease-resistant, blue-green leaves that turn burgundy with orange and gold in the fall. The russet-brown bark on the stems provides good winter color and adds contrast and harmony to the design. At the main entrance, for example, the yellow flowers will contrast with the bronze foliage of the “Diablo” ninebark as one drives in. The yellow flowers of Saint Johnswort help unify the landscape in summer by providing a link to the “Bright Edge” yucca. In winter, the bark does the job, linking with the orange-red stems of the “Mid-winter fire” dogwood.

The influences of the adjacent Bent Creek, the surrounding mountain ridges and the streamside habitat can be seen in the ornamental gates and gatehouse and throughout the landscape plantings. Both the landscape design and its plant palette respond to the surrounding natural systems, creating a strong sense of place and reflecting a deep appreciation for this area’s rich plant diversity.

The new landscape welcomes guests to the Arboretum. And even though they’re passing through it quickly, those lasting first impressions are designed to call them back again.

[Allison Arnold is director of horticulture at The North Carolina Arboretum. She can be reached at 665-2492.]

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