Meet our AAS Display Garden Thanksgiving Point’s Ashton Gardens
Thanksgiving Point’s Ashton Gardens feature 50 acres of unique gardens, grand lawns, and the largest manmade waterfall in America. One of those unique, beloved gardens is The Learning Garden. The Learning Garden is a space designed to help novice gardeners learn the essential skills from experienced staff members. It also acts as Thanksgiving Point’s Display Garden and showcases all the beautiful top-performing varieties that All-America Selections provides, and the Ashton Garden’s talented gardeners maintain.
Every year, All-America Selections Display Gardens can participate in their Landscape Design Challenge, and each new year brings a new theme. Last year, Thanksgiving Point’s Learning Garden took part in this challenge whose theme was “Diversity in the Garden”. One of those talented gardeners, Angela Free, designed the Learning Garden around her interpretation of the theme by focusing on biodiversity.
What is Biodiversity?
Biodiversity is the variety of life in a particular habitat or ecosystem – or in our case, a garden. In terms of gardening, this usually means using native plants to provide food for other members of that habitat. “I treat the learning garden like a little baby farm, like a mini-ecosystem and I like to plant a lot of different plants and see what works best with each other,” says Thanksgiving Point Horticulturist Angela Free. “This year, for this challenge we decided to bring people into it as well as plants, and the people, places, and cultures represented are what made it special.” So, she inserted plants from around the world into the garden to see how they would thrive or contribute to the ecosystem established by the native plants.
2021 Design Challenge:
“Because we already follow the principle of Biodiversity in our vegetable garden every season, we wanted to add another element this year,” says Angela. “The idea was to highlight the people in our community who had experiences with cultures and plants outside of Utah.”
Her first step was to contact Thanksgiving Point staff across the property and Ashton Gardens’ volunteers and talk with them about the plants that have had an impact on their lives. She received seven unique responses:
- Shiso from Japan: Also known as the “Beefsteak Plant”, this popular Asian herb is known for its jagged leaves and fresh flavor. It is a member of the mint family.
- Lantana from California: A shrub with multicolored flowers and fragrant leaves, this plant is excellent at attracting butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.
- Herbs De Provence from France: Common herbs that add flavor to any dish, Herbs De Provence traditionally include basil, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, oregano, and bay leaf.
- Butterfly Weed from Mexico: These tall plants with blood orange and lemon-yellow flowers are a species of the milkweed genus. While they’re inedible to humans, butterflies and hummingbirds love this plant’s bright color and rich taste.
- Nasturtium from Oregon: These plants are known for their cheerful look and their interesting taste. The young leaves taste like watercress, while the older leaves have a peppery, spicy taste. The pollinators love these flavors just as much as humans do.
- Passion Vine from Brazil: These fast-growing, trailing vines love the sun and warm climates. While the fruit is delicious, several other parts of the plant are harmful if ingested. This vine is a favorite among many insects.
- Collard Green from North Carolina: It’s not The South without some Collard Greens! This plant is an extremely popular ingredient in several recipes in the Southern United States. They look like cabbages without heads and have long and large green leaves.
After the seeds were in the ground, she teamed up with the marketing department to help with signage. This signage expressed the stories behind the greenery in the garden beds.
When visitors saw the Butterfly Weed, they would learn that it reminded Gabriela Mendez, a member of the Horticulture team, of growing up in Mexico where it would grow in the creeks and provide food for the butterflies and hummingbirds.
When they saw the Herbs De Provence, they would come to know that Axel Estable, Director of Learning and Engagement, would see these herbs regularly grow on the limestone around the Mediterranean coast of France. He recalls that the best way to gather them was to just rip the plants directly off the rocks.
When they saw the Nasturtium, they would discover how Karma Anderson, the Irrigation Manager, has an aunt in Oregon who always had big beds full of this plant. They would learn that the flowers are deliciously hot and sweet.
These plants, while new to so many visitors, have strong sentimental meaning to Thanksgiving Point volunteers and staff. They bring memories of their childhood or family to life.
With the correct signage and the plants growing, guests came in and got to experience something completely unique from what they were used to in Utah. They were able to receive education on not only these specific plants but also the importance of (bio)diversity.
Why is Biodiversity important for a garden?
Biodiversity helps gardens in several ways – from aesthetic presentation to environmental balance to service to the human world. Some of the main reasons horticulturists and gardeners value biodiversity include:
- Insect Management: Garden biodiversity increases the chances of beneficial insects frequenting the garden and contributing to the function and health of its overall ecosystem.
- Healthy Microbe Activity: Garden biodiversity creates a better balance of soil microbes. These microbes help the entry and storage of water and build up the resilience of the soil to erosion and other environmental difficulties.
- Beauty: Different colors, shapes, cycles, and structures can only add beauty to a garden if planted correctly.
- Preserves Worldwide Biodiversity: Biodiversity around the world has been declining, which is both ecologically and anthropologically problematic as it, on a global scale, helps to provide for several of our basic needs. When gardens pay specific attention to increasing the biodiversity of their own garden it is a little victory for the preservation of worldwide biodiversity.
Biodiversity and human diversity are comparable in their overall importance to societies. It facilitates a more functional community with a stronger foundation and significantly contributes to the beauty of an environment. A single more diverse community can also be a shining example to other communities and thus, increase overall inclusivity.
Observation and Appreciation:
Angela talked about how when you look closely and you take your time, you can see how growth habit teaches about a plant and about how plants communicate. You learn that they are not only beautiful but incredibly fascinating. “I love the scientific part,” she said, “they have this miraculous ability to send signals to help them thrive and defend themselves. They work with each other, they work together. You know, symbiosis. I think we could learn from that.”
While it is fun to experiment with what you put in your garden, the plants know what they need and where they thrive. Utah’s climate is not the best for every flora. Angela suggests, “Don’t push something that shouldn’t be. Work with nature and not against it.”
About the Gardener:
Angela first began truly gardening when she and her husband bought their first house, but her love of plants started years before that purchase. As a teen, she would spend her allowance on house plants. She said the plants inspired her as a young adult. When she bought her new house, it came with a new yard and that love for plants and gardening was invigorated. Angela has been gardening professionally for six years and has worked in the Ashton Gardens at Thanksgiving Point for four of those years. She earned her certificate of horticulture from Utah State University (USU) in 2018 and is currently working on her associate degree in Horticulture from USU. Thanksgiving Point partners with USU on their Extension Program, offering educational opportunities to students and the public alike.
Thanksgiving Point is proud to have an AAS Display Garden and is grateful to receive seeds and plants from All-America Selections that can be thoughtfully planted – by artists like Angela Free. The Learning Garden helps fulfill Thanksgiving Point’s mission of bringing the joy of learning and the wonders of the natural world to life. For more information visit the Ashton Gardens.
“This post is provided as an education/inspirational service of All-America Selections. Please credit and link to All-America Selections when using all or parts of this article.”