Our visit to Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland was a memorable one. Although we left the University of Delaware at the bright and cheery hour of 7 a.m., it was well worth it! Upon our arrival, we were greeted enthusiastically by the Director, Stephanie Oberle. Stephanie has spent many years at Brookside including time as a young girl growing up nearby, as a volunteer in high school, an undergraduate intern, AND as a graduate student in the Longwood Graduate Program! She oversees Brookside, an institution that functions within an organizational structure that is quite unlike its peers, which includes being part of a larger municipal government hierarchy.
This year and continuing over the next three years, Brookside’s theme will focus on edible plants. One of their challenges is finding appropriate plant material for displays. In general, vegetables and other edible plants are bred for high yield with little thought to aesthetics. Crop plants also incur more labor than ornamental plants, and some crops need to be harvested up to 3 times a week! Jim Deramus, a horticulturist at Brookside, has enthusiastically taken on these challenges. Besides handling all the maintenance and harvesting of the edible plants, he sends many crops to the local food bank to feed the homeless. Some of the plantings included okra, swiss chard, rice, and sorghum. The Fellows especially enjoyed the display of purple tomatillos, although one would argue this was because we were able to sample them; so tasty! However, Brookside also provided experiences beyond our palate.
We discovered that the butterfly house and show was more than a destination for kids or families, but for big kids too! (a.k.a. Longwood Graduate Fellows). This show is one of Brookside’s main revenue streams, attracting an average of 50,000 paid visitors a year. It is remarkable that the butterfly exhibit utilizes half of the entire volunteer workforce in the Parks Department for the whole county. It’s extremely popular! With specimens from North American, African, and Asian continents, there truly are butterflies for everyone.
Visiting Brookside on August 12 was a unique experience in light of some recent extreme weather. Just days before our arrival, a ‘microblast’ rain storm hit Brookside, dumping so much rain that water ran 10’ above the sides of the large creek bed that runs along the gardens! The most visible damage was seen from the boardwalk that runs alongside the creek and, in total, they lost 12 large shade trees. Even though the damage may seem discouraging, Stephanie and the team are seeking out learning opportunities for guests, such as leaving an uprooted tree where it landed to illustrate root systems.
Ironically, after all the adverse weather, it should be noted that Brookside DOES have a rain garden! Stephanie mentioned that one of their main goals was to show the public you can have an aesthetically pleasing rain garden; it doesn’t have to look like ‘a weed patch’ to be fully functional. Although it is a demonstration garden, it also serves as a barrier between their conservatory and an area that tends to have flash runoff.
But at the end of the day, it was obvious amongst our group that the most valuable time at Brookside was in discussions with the team. It’s fitting that such a dynamic garden would have such a fantastic group of staff!