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Lewis Ginter’s horticulture director is passionate about plants

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Lewis Ginter’s horticulture director is passionate about plants

by Tammie Smith,
March 25th 2012

Calling Grace Chapman a plant nerd or plant geek is paying her a compliment.

The new horticulture director of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden has a passion for plants, which is no surprise.

Some plants, though, are dearer to her than others.

When she moved to Richmond about six months ago to take the job overseeing the garden’s 50 acres of themed displays, two big staghorn ferns were among the 40 or so houseplants loaded into a moving van along with her furniture, clothes, sewing machine and two beehives. Yes, she is a beekeeper, too.

The ferns “were like family members to me almost. I had them for a few years and didn’t want to give them up,” Chapman said recently, taking a break from overseeing installation of a nature-friendly geese deterrent system around a pond at the garden.

Staghorn ferns, she explained, have an unusual growth habit. They have both fertile and nonfertile fronds. The sterile fronds sort of overlap each other, forming a ball, or mass.

“Then the fertile fronds hang off the end. It looks like deer antlers,” she said, thus the name staghorn. They reproduce by growing offshoots.

“With those, I had pulled pups off of my parents’ plants down in Florida,” she said, explaining the “like family” comment.

Her two big ferns, for now, are hanging in the conservatory at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, which is getting a makeover as Chapman slowly adds her touch and vision to the displays and acres of flower beds, borders and gardens.

“Our main goal obviously is maintaining the property,” said Chapman, who as horticulture director manages a staff of 15 year-round and seasonal workers and hundreds of volunteers who help tend the gardens.

“I’m really interested in making sure that we have really, really unique plant material and that this isn’t going to look like every other residential or commercial landscape,” she said. “People are going to come here to get inspired, to learn new ways of gardening, new ways of putting plants together, different plant combinations.”

In addition to the gardens, Lewis Ginter has an extensive education program, with fee-based classes open to the community. Popular garden events include an annual holiday lights display, the popular Groovin’ in the Garden summer concert series, and spring and fall plant sales.

* * * * *

Chapman has a master’s in public horticulture with a certificate in museum studies from the Longwood Graduate Program at the University of Delaware and an undergraduate degree from the University of Florida, where she combined studies in agriculture and public gardens management. In between the two degree programs, she spent a year in Great Britain, where as Garden Club of America Martin McLaren Horticulture Scholar she studied at gardens in England and Scotland.

“I was able to really develop my own program. At the time I was really interested in educational programs in children’s gardens,” Chapman said. “I worked in a number of different gardens with their education departments, teaching kids about nature, taking them on field trips. …One thing that I thought was really cool is that they weren’t just teaching science in these gardens. They were teaching all across the curriculum — art, reading, math, as well as the sciences.”

Shane Tippett, executive director at Lewis Ginter, said Chapman was named horticulture director after a national search, and was among a field of 32 candidates deemed well-qualified for the job. Her background and experience brought her to the top, he said.

“Her core work ethic and her ethical standards were based upon being a leader who makes her people thrive. That’s one of the key elements I was looking for.”

Frank Robinson, president and chief executive officer, said the search committee felt the 30-year-old Chapman was right for the job and the future, which includes paying more attention to the environment and ecological sustainability, and helping revamp areas of the garden that have passed their prime and need sprucing up.

“We are at a point where we are ready for a generational change, another new beginning of leadership, and so that really just provided to us the sense of fresh beginnings,” Robinson said.

“We have all the new things we are hoping to do over the next three to five years. We’ve been in construction continuously for about 15 years now. Now we have a wonderful physical plant and our gardens are starting to mature.

“Grace brings both energy and youth, but also some fabulous international experience in helping us make those transitions, a real passion about horticulture, just at a time where we’re actually redoing some of our gardens because they have started to show some age. She’s here at the perfect time to help us rethink everything — from the way we display the plants to how we add to them or things that we remove,” Robinson said.

She has begun the transformation, designing the popular Orchids Galore! exhibit, which is on display in the conservatory through April 22.

“I really focused on bringing an educational message to that display,” Chapman said. “This year we’re really focusing on the geography of where the displays are from. For instance, all the orchids from Africa are grouped together in the same bed. …We’re talking about orchid conservation and plant exploration. We’re telling the story of the people who have gone out deep into the jungle, to the tops of mountains, to collect these orchids.”

* * * * *

One of the construction projects under way consists of restoring the West Island Garden, a man-made wetlands area. Goals are to preserve the carnivorous pitcher plants and to improve the flow of guests through the area.

That $500,000 project — which includes dredging the shallow parts of the lake, shoring up the islands, reinforcing weirs or dams, and rebuilding walkways — should be completed by the third week in April, Tippett said.

It’s just one of many projects Chapman is overseeing.

“We are really committed to high display standards, so we want to make sure that it looks pristine, and also that we really, really tell the educational mission with our plant collection,” Chapman said.

“So we are making sure our plants are properly labeled and that we communicate a lot with the education department to make sure that what we’re displaying corresponds with what they are teaching, (and) what they’re teaching works with what is on display,” she said.

About 500 volunteers help care for the garden. Carol Gill, chairwoman of horticulture volunteers, served on the search committee that selected Chapman. In the short time Chapman has been at the garden, Gill said she has begun to make her mark.

“Volunteers provide a lot of labor to have this beautiful garden. … We certainly are appreciative of the fact that initially she has sought us out to teach us about some of the plans she is making for the future,” Gill said. “So by educating us, we can do a better job of volunteer work and help carry out the goals of the garden.”

Another upcoming project, Tippett said, will consist of planting a collection of cherry trees around the lake. An anonymous donor provided money for that effort.

“We are hoping to make both banks of Lake Sydnor more robust,” Tippett said, adding that Chapman’s impact is being noticed.

“The garden is horticulture, and she is the leader and frequently the face of horticulture. Something she said to me is that she thrives when her people succeed. Her people are succeeding. The work is looking extraordinary this year,” Tippett said.

* * * * *

When she is not working, Chapman might be tending to her beehives, a hobby she picked up from her dad. He helped her move her hives from Pennsylvania and her previous job to Richmond. The hives are in a nonpublic area at the garden.

“I just started three years ago,” said Chapman, who admits being terrified of bees before she learned their habits. “As I started learning more and more about bees … I was much less afraid and more fascinated.”

Her passion, though, is among the greenery and colorful blooms in the garden.

“This is a really, really cool garden, and I’m learning every day,” she said.

“When I went to college, I first started studying biological engineering. I was always sneaking a plant class or two into my curriculum. Then I realized I could actually stop sneaking them in and actually focus on horticulture. I didn’t realize you could major in horticulture and that there were professional careers in the field, even going through horticulture classes in high school.

“It seemed like I should be doing something like engineering just because I could. … Luckily, I didn’t spend time out in the field and then realize I should do a career change. I feel lucky I was able to figure it out early on.”

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Written by vaphc

March 25, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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