The Gardener's Apprentice

Ginter’s Garden

In his play Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare gives the following lines to Marc Antony:

“The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones…”

This may sometimes be the case, but it was not so with Lewis Ginter—1824-1897—a New York native who migrated to Richmond, Virginia and made successive fortunes in linen sales, finance and finally, the manufacture and sale of cigarettes.  Whatever evil Ginter did is lost to history, but his name and good works live on all over Richmond, especially at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.  At this time of the year, it glows with enough color to add considerable luster to the Ginter reputation.

Unlike Henry Francis Dupont, creator of the famous Longwood Gardens, Ginter did not seem to have a keen interest in horticulture.  Once he made his final fortune in tobacco products, he devoted himself to philanthropy and development in the Richmond area.  Noting the bicycling craze of the 1890’s, he bought property and founded the Lakeside Cycling Club just outside of Richmond in 1895.  Damming a stream, he created a lake on the site and also built a trolley line to get people out to the new club.  It was a hit, at least for a time.

Ginter died in 1897 and when the bicycling craze abated, the property was abandoned.  Eventually, Ginter’s niece, Grace Arents, herself a philanthropist, bought the land, remodeling the cycling club’s headquarters into a convalescent home for sick children.  When the property was no longer needed for that purpose, Grace Arents moved into the house, named it Bloemendaal—Dutch for “valley of flowers”—and began development of the gardens that were the precursors of the Ginter Botanical Garden.  When she died in 1926, the property, which she had expanded from Ginter’s original nine acres, already contained collections of specimen trees, shrubs and, especially roses.  Grace Arents’ will bequeathed the Ginter property to the City of Richmond, but granted lifetime use to her longtime companion.  After the companion’s death and a period when the property was used as a nursery by Richmond’s Parks and Recreation Department, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden came into legal existence in 1981 and opened its doors in 1987.

I had long wanted to visit Ginter, which has been described and praised widely in the horticultural press.  Last week I arrived in Richmond, just in time for the last of the tulips and the first of the glorious azaleas and rhododendrons.  Prowling through the various garden areas, it is hard to imagine that the landscape is young by botanical institution standards.  One of the garden’s centerpieces is a domed conservatory, similar in configuration to larger versions at places like the New York Botanical Garden and Kew Gardens in England.  The special conservatory exhibit was a butterfly house, with one of the conservatory’s rooms closed off to allow a collection of farm-raised butterflies from all over the world to flutter among the plants and flowers.  As with many similar butterfly exhibits, access was controlled to keep the environment healthy for the insects.  There is nothing more magical than butterflies, especially when they are so numerous, varied and colorful.

Children’s learning gardens are fashionable at horticultural institutions now and the Ginter Garden has an ingenious one, crowned by a fantastic treehouse that is easily accessible by a series of long ramps.  My adult self did not want to join the scores of children romping through the treehouse on the day of my visit, but I did long to be one of them again.

One of the unique features of the Ginter property is the rolling terrain that helps define the various garden areas and gives visitors many interesting vistas.  The rose garden, in keeping with Grace Arents’ passion for the plants, is home to 1,800 rose bushes.  A few were in bloom on the day of my visit.  I wish that I could go back about a week from now to see and smell the roses in full bloom.

Ginter also boasts many contrasting water features, from fountains in the Fountain Garden, to the stream by the Tea House, to the lake originally created by Ginter.  Numerous smaller pools and fountains accent the planting areas.

When I visited Ginter, the spring display was just getting started.  A few tree peonies, sprinkled through the landscape, were blooming, but the herbaceous peonies were still in bud.  Dogwoods were flowering, but most of the magnolias, including magnificent Southern magnolias—Magnolia grandiflora—had yet to pop blossoms.  My arrival coincided with peak bloom for the trilliums and mayapples in the woodland areas and I felt very lucky.

All botanical gardens have elements in common—educational missions, conservatories, rose gardens, perennial borders, conifer collections and these days, demonstration vegetable plots.  The wonder of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is that after only thirty years of existence, much of it looks as if it has been there forever. The conservatory only dates to 2003, but you would never know it. The garden areas are also beautifully tended, which speaks to the soundness of the Ginter administration, not to mention the skill of the employees and the dedication of the volunteers who form a significant part of the labor force at any botanical institution.     The entire landscape is a fitting tribute to Lewis Ginter, civic benefactor; Grace Arents, garden lover; and the people of the City of Richmond, who were willing to bring Ms. Arents’ dream to fruition.