Learning the value of ACS Reference Gardens at Virginia’s Al Gardner Memorial Garden

Al Gardner Memorial Conifer Garden

Al Gardner Memorial Conifer Garden

If you’re anything like me, taking a 30-minute detour on a road trip is considered a “scenic drive” if the purpose of the alternate route is to visit a conifer garden.

I regularly travel Interstate 95 in central Virginia, and every time I see Colesville Nursery off to my east I think, “Man, I need to remember to exit at Ashland next time.”

Well, not too far from Ashland is the Al Gardner Memorial Conifer Garden in Goochland, Virginia., between Richmond and Charlottesville.

Gardner, who passed away in 2007, co-owned Colesville and co-founded the nearby Acer Acres, which specializes in container-grown Japanese maples. Gardner was an avid conifer collector and advocated for increasing their use in home landscapes.

Picea orientalis 'Skylands'

Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’

This American Conifer Society Reference Garden is located on the campus of J. Sargent Reynolds Community College and features over 125 different conifers.

Conifers are interesting to me year-round, but I particularly love seeing how many of them change dramatically in winter. I discovered and first visited the Reynolds arboretum last November and returned for a second visit in March.

Pinus virginiana ‘Wate’s Golden’ with a backdrop of Cryptomeria japonica ‘Al’s Blue’ is spectacular. Picea glauca ‘Pendula’ stands solemnly behind. On a cloudy day, Picea omorika ‘Skylands’ rises above the evergreens like a fireworks display.

Pinus virginiana ‘Wate’s Golden’

Just down the hill from the reference garden, you’ll find a grove of mature trees representing a wide variety of species. Walk around the buildings and you’ll find lush landscaping. Don’t miss Pinus parviflora ‘Tanima-no-yuki’ guarding the walkway to Building C. I guess I should have assumed that the area’s only school with a horticulture department would have a beautiful property!

Over the past year, I’ve helped Colby Feller with his work at the ACS Reference Garden atop The Arsenal in New York City’s Central Park. I’ve walked through the conifers at the State Arboretum of Virginia, 70  miles west of Washington, D.C. I regularly visit Richmond’s Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and make a point to see their conifer reference plantings, but as a relatively new ACS member, the term “reference garden” didn’t sink in with me until my last visit to the Reynolds campus.

Chamaecyparis thyoides 'Holata'

Chamaecyparis thyoides ‘Holata’

I began collecting conifers in 2013. I have since planted hundreds in my front yard. Since I have plenty of space, I have been buying larger and larger plants recently, but I’m still a sucker for the interesting young plants, typically grown by Iseli Nursery, which you find in pint-sized containers at local nurseries.

Last Spring, I bought Thuja orientalis ‘Franky Boy’ without any research, simply because it looked like a box of spaghetti growing out of a small pot. The plant must love its spot, as it has doubled in size over the past year. Since it was mixed with other dwarf-sized plants at the nursery, I didn’t think too much about future growth when I bought it and stuck it in the ground.

Thuja orientalis ‘Franky Boy’

Thuja orientalis ‘Franky Boy’

Walking the paths at Reynolds, I stopped to check out an unfamiliar 6-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide golden shrub and walked around to the other side to locate the tag. Lo and behold, it was ‘Franky Boy’! Now I’m reconsidering where I choose to plant mine!

I’ll be adding ACS Reference Garden visits to my research routine as I compare my growing conifer wish list with the interesting plants I find on my travels.

Business takes me to Portland next. I see Silverton isn’t that far away…

To find a map and to explore the Al Gardener Conifer Garden plants and photos online, visit: http://plantsmap.com/organizations/reynolds-community-college