A Conversation with Matthew Ross on Public Gardens and Native Plants

| General

Across the United States, public gardens offer a gateway to understanding the ecological and cultural significance of plants. They serve as centers for conservation, education, and sustainable landscaping. Learn about the role public gardens play in conservation, education, and community engagement in this Q&A with horticultural education leader and advocate for native plants in both public and private gardens, Matthew Ross.

Matthew Ross is the Executive Director of The Botanic Garden at Historic Barns Park in Traverse City Michigan. He leads a team of volunteers that are cultivating a living sanctuary at the former Northern Michigan Aslyum. He is an ambassador for native plants and has been an advocate for their use in both public and private gardens. He has previously served as a National Board Member for Wild Ones and is a contributing author to the Wild Ones Journal.

Ross enjoys traveling across the US where his passion for plants, photography, and natural landscapes converge. He estimates that he has visited over 2,500 public and private gardens during his career and is always happy to share info about his journeys.

We interviewed Ross over email last week for some insight into the roles of public gardens. Ross’s regular “Botanic Gardens Across the Nation” feature in the Wild Ones Journal demonstrates a passion for native plants and ecological education. Keep reading to learn more and visit your nearest public garden today!

 1. What is your favorite public garden and how many have you visited?

In terms of public gardens, parks, and cemeteries easily over 1,000-1,500 globally. In the states several hundred for sure.

My favorites… that’s a tough question, I think each public garden has a different story to tell, a different mission, and a different lens to interpret the natural world. I find myself gravitated to gardens that push the boundaries of what is feasible, that blend in a mix of aesthetics and environmental function. I have a fondness for many of the gardens in the Brandywine River Valley where I used to work, especially Chanticleer where I see the pinnacle of gardening. I love Mt. Cuba for advancing the science and the romance of naturalistic landscaping and after watching the meadow garden at Longwood Gardens evolve as an employee I revel in its aesthetic and its intentional design. I also love the playfulness and palette at Coastal Maine Botanic Garden, but… I will have to say my favorite garden is the one I have there pleasure of building with our team of volunteers at Historic Barns Park!

2. What role do public gardens play in the conservation of native plant species?

A misnomer is that gardens are static; that they focus on collection and beauty and do not provide services to the conservation and protection of native plant species. It couldn’t be further from the truth, public gardens often highlight plants from the fields and forests of their respective regions in new, insightful, and approachable ways. Exposing the general public to the beauty in the natural realm not only increases awareness and appreciation but also helps further conservation goals for species and regional ecosystems. Beyond the plants physically on display a myriad of conservation initiatives are at the core of several of the botanic gardens missions. Whether it’s in situ conservation and monitoring or creating protocols for the propagation and proliferation of imperiled species the resources and energy put into conservation of native species is immense. Many public gardens like Mt. Cuba, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, North Carolina Bot, California Botanic Garden and so many have devoted their entire mission to the preservation and conservation of native plant species. Others most notably Denver Botanic Gardens are carrying that mission right to their community by engaging in residential landscape design consultations to advance the acceptance of native plants beyond their borders.

3. What can public gardens teach us about sustainable landscaping with native plants?

While many of us have been aware of the benefits and the beauty of sustainable landscaping, there are many people who first encounter the techniques and designs of sustainable landscapes at public gardens. Whether it’s a student walking through a university arboretum, or a jogger running through a public park, or a kid exploring nature at children’s garden there are an abundance of ways in which people seek out or sometimes tumble upon public gardens. The work being done at public parks like Brooklyn Bridge, Millennium, and the Parklands have progressed the paradigm shift in public landscaping perspectives. Expanding the use of the native plant palette also helps drive the work of North Creek Nursery, Izel Plants, and a plethora of native plant producers to meet the demand of the large scale projects which in turn inspires home gardeners to want to try their hand at growing plants that have been unheralded in the past. Additionally, public gardens are a great place of trials like at Mt. Cuba Center where side by side comparisons are approachable by the general public. This work not only inspires others but provides a necessary economic driver to show the benefits to plant producers looking to increase the breadth of their offerings without having to seek out which species are best suited for the garden.

4. How do you see the mission of Wild Ones and public gardens aligning?

I feel like the work that is being done by Wild Ones has helped catapult the acceptance, appreciation, and demand for native plant gardens nationwide. In the short 20+ years I have worked in the landscape and public horticulture arena the desire for homeowners to contribute to planting native plants in their own home gardens has never been more present. Much of that success has been from the work of Wild Ones and our honorary directors who have been leaders in this arena. Although not formally aligned the same work has been going on at public gardens throughout the nation where research, native plant production, and increased use of native plants have dramatically shifted our perceptions. With the momentum of the Homegrown National Park movement and the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge quickly exceeding its target public gardens have proven to be a great community to amplify the amazing work going on at a national stage. I really find that combining the public inquiries about native plant gardening and the nearly two dozen sample designs completed by Wild Ones makes for a much more achievable vision. Likewise, I feel like having the 10,000 members of Wild Ones be aware of the great work happening at Public Gardens provides a chance for symbiosis, shared learning, and hopefully support for the Public Gardens that are always looking for ways to positively impact their respective communities.

5. How do public gardens go beyond being a repository of native plants? 

Through educational programming, events, and outreach public gardens have a long history of directly engaging with the public to share the stories of plants beyond their beauty. I feel incredibly fortunate to work alongside our Anishinaabe colleagues as we build out our foraging meadow and medicine wheel gardens at The Botanic Garden at Historic Barns Park. Deepening my knowledge and appreciation for the medicinal, spiritual, and culinary uses of the plants within our healing garden. Through classes and collaboration this garden not only shares the benefits of native plantings it provides a forum to share their vital ethnobotanical importance.