There’s a sardine can in Schuyler that holds decades of history.
Imagine, sometime in the mid-20th century, a worker sitting down to eat lunch on the ground. He unrolls the top from a can of sardines and eats the fish, then maybe stretches out for a brief nap in the sun. When it’s time to get back to work, he rises and takes his metal lunch box with him as he strides a few steps away to the huge, square-cut hole in the earth, where he and other quarry workers spend their days cutting massive blocks of soapstone.
He leaves the can lying where it came to rest: right next to a small seedling, a tree called devil’s walking stick that sports fearsome thorns along its stems. Seasons pass, rain falls, and the little tree slowly grows thicker. Eventually its bark forms a swollen growth around the can—metal and wood enveloping each other, the quarry worker’s forgotten lunch becoming a physical part of the living tree.
More time passes; no one knows exactly how much, but most people know what happened in Nelson County on the night of August 19, 1969. In some spots around the old quarries—which were soon to be abandoned—the deluge delivered by Hurricane Camille scoured away several inches of topsoil, including from around the base of the walking stick tree. And the sardine can, which had been resting at ground level, was still held by the tree, but it was now 12 inches in the air.
Twenty-two years later, Armand and Bernice Thieblot—a Baltimore couple who owned a successful consulting business—bought a broad swath of this land, including the old quarries. “We wanted something we could improve,” says Bernice.
The Thieblots intended to eventually retire here, but that would be a long time coming. They used their 600-acre Schuyler property as a country retreat, and they spent a lot of weekends cleaning up trash; for a decade after shutting down, the quarries had been used as local dumps. The land had also been clear-cut. The Thieblots added onto the little house, planted wisteria along the patio and focused more on stopping erosion into the small lake near their house than on the deep, mysterious quarry pools that lurked further away, in the woods.
In Charlottesville, meanwhile, people were talking about a distant idea.
Eugene Ryang was in landscape architecture school at UVA in the 1990s, and he remembers students in Warren Byrd’s studios working on an assignment that, at the time, was fairly theoretical: a master plan for something called the McIntire Botanical Garden. The idea was to create, for Charlottesville, a garden like those found in many larger cities, a place for people to stroll through galleries of ornamental plants, so they could learn and enjoy as they went.
Although there were plenty of people who wanted to make the botanical garden a reality, it would not be easy to do. It took two decades or so (and a lengthy community battle over the John W. Warner Parkway) before Ryang arrived at the moment in early May 2018 when he stood under a white tent, in an overgrown corner of McIntire Park, and heard his firm’s name read aloud as one of the designers of the McIntire Botanical Garden.
As MBG Board President Linda Seaman remarked just before she announced the two landscape architecture firms the board had chosen—Ryang’s Waterstreet Studio will partner with Boston-based Mikyoung Kim Design—the garden is meant to be a long-term investment in Charlottesville’s future. “It is our hope,” she said, “that 50 to 100 years from now the McIntire Botanical Garden will still be a delight to everyone living here.”
Signs of the times
The planting of a garden is a gift from one generation to the generations that will follow. And like a museum or a library, it reflects the values and priorities of the generation that creates it. Just as New York’s Central Park or Philadelphia’s Longwood Gardens are artifacts of their eras, so will the MBG grow from the soil of its times.
The Thieblots, too, came to embrace a distinctly contemporary idea as they considered what to do with their land in Schuyler. After they retired full-time to Nelson County in 2013, they took a trip out west—“the great American road trip,” Bernice says. One of their stops was Butchart Gardens, a botanical garden created more than a century ago in a former quarry in British Columbia. Host to more than 1 million visitors annually, it looks something like the land of Oz: a fantasy of candy-colored flowers, winding paths under blooming archways and gushing fountains.
“That approach didn’t appeal to us,” says Bernice. Nonetheless, she and her husband took inspiration from the idea of transforming post-industrial land into a beautiful public attraction. Bernice had taken Master Gardener training in 2009, becoming aware of the native plant movement. The Thieblots came to embrace a plan for a garden to celebrate the native flora and fauna of their site, while highlighting—not erasing—its quarry history.
The Quarry Gardens at Schuyler offers free guided tours by reservation. A Visitors Center includes exhibits on the site’s ecology and the native plantings designed by the Center for Urban Habitats. It also teaches guests about Schuyler’s past as a world capital of soapstone quarrying. Just outside, a demonstration garden shows off the potential for beautiful blooms that home gardeners can achieve with native species—highlights are Quarry blue sedge, shrubby St. John’s wort and native goldenrod. See quarrygardensatschuyler.org for visitor info and a wealth of plant data.
McIntire Botanical Garden is still in the planning phase; organizers hope to break ground there in 2020, and it will be a free attraction. For now, it is simply part of McIntire Park, located at the corner of Melbourne Road and the John W. Warner Parkway. See mcintirebotanicalgarden.org.
Charlottesville-based firm Land Planning & Design Associates created a master plan for the 40 acres that the Thieblots identified as the public garden site, laying out roads, a parking area and two acres of walking trails. Meanwhile, Bernice was trying to wrap her head around the wealth of knowledge that would be necessary to create a thoughtful, detailed garden design. “I was buying books, but it was overwhelming,” she says. When she met Devin Floyd, the founder of the Center for Urban Habitats, it was “a godsend.”
With a background spanning archaeology, landscape design and natural history, Floyd is used to thinking in broad, interconnected terms. His firm “doesn’t garden with plants,” he says. “We garden with systems—communities of plants.” At what would eventually become Quarry Gardens, CUH started with a sweeping survey of the existing flora and fauna.
The survey identified nearly 400 plant species on the site, about 40 of those not previously reported in Nelson County. More than a simple catalog, it began to form a picture of the Quarry Gardens’ specific geological and biological characteristics—a portrait of where the landscape was then, and where it was headed.
“Every landscape has a natural trajectory,” explains Floyd. Bedrock, elevation, exposure, drainage and other factors add up to a recipe that favors some plants over others; left alone, any landscape will eventually host a specific plant community that is much more narrowly “local” than we tend to think when we use terms like “Virginia native plants.” “We like to use the phrase ‘local native,’” says Floyd. “Our definition has been honed thanks to ecologists.”
Something blue, something new?
Just outside the Visitors Center at Quarry Gardens, look for a low grass-like plant with a striking ice-blue color. This is Carex glaucodea, or blue sedge, available from commercial nurseries but perhaps not, thinks Devin Floyd with the Center for Urban Habitats, in exactly this form.
“There are several variants in Virginia of this blue sedge,” he says—“coastal, Piedmont, Blue Ridge.” During CUH’s surveys of the Quarry Gardens biota, Floyd noticed that the blue sedge on-site had a distinctive hue. “I’ve not seen it quite that blue,” he says. “It may have characteristics that are locally unique.”
He and others at Quarry Gardens have affectionately named this plant Quarry blue sedge. They hope to propagate it and make it available for sale. “It’s a mascot for the whole thing we’re doing here,” says Floyd. “It does well in harsh conditions.” And for the plant to have its own local name is an appropriate tribute to the local-native philosophy that has driven the design at Quarry Gardens.
At Quarry Gardens, Floyd and his team encountered an unusual challenge. “It’s a rare bedrock—soapstone—and a completely obliterated landscape,” he says. “There’s a heavy amount of post oak, blackjack oak and white ash, combined with other species like dwarf hackberry, redbud and a good bit of pine. This is not a standard oak-hickory forest. It’s so starkly different.” CUH classified much of the Quarry Gardens site as ultramafic, meaning that the soil has a low ratio of calcium to magnesium, and identified a number of niche habitats like vernal pools, hardpan wetlands and small patches of prairie.
From this basis, CUH’s design phase aimed to enhance the natural recovery that had been happening on the site for several decades already—to help the land along its trajectory, thus supporting the greatest possible array of native wildlife. “Biological survey really informs the plant design,” he says. Another way to put it: “Landscape design doubles as conservation biology.”
That way of thinking about a garden—as a system connected to larger systems—is a hallmark of contemporary design. Gregg Bleam, a landscape architect who’s contributed design work in the past to city parks in Charlottesville, says that botanical gardens are evolving away from the “tree collection” model of the past. “A botanic garden’s like a library on one level—people go there and learn,” he says. In the past, that meant seeing a single tree or plant as a specimen that represented its kind. “Now there’s more of an idea of associations and collections based on natural systems.”
On May 3, the day the MBG schematic design firms were announced, groups of interested people followed Cole Burrell along the mowed pathway that loops through the MBG site. Burrell, an author and garden designer who serves on the MBG board, pointed out the big tulip poplars and maples that will provide “structure” for the future garden, and answered questions from his audience. One man asked if trees and plants will be labeled when the garden opens to the public.
“There’s nothing worse than a landscape full of labels,” Burrell replied. He described, instead, high-tech “nodes” in the garden where people could use their smartphones to access information about plants and ecology.
If the old approach to education is changing, so is the cabinet-of-curiosities paradigm that one might experience at a place like Richmond’s Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, where themed spaces—Asian Valley garden, rose garden, etc.—present a series of separate aesthetic visions. Instead, McIntire is likely to look more like an integrated whole. And while board president Seaman says that she’s heard many requests for a children’s garden in the future MBG, the children’s space may not be a segregated area either, but instead kids may be invited to play and climb in a multitude of spots throughout the site.
Quarry Gardens, which opened for guided tours in 2017, and McIntire Botanical Garden, which is slated for groundbreaking in 2020, present two new opportunities for locals to get outside, learn about plants and wildlife, and connect with nature. They represent different models; whereas McIntire is a public project, relying on a partnership with the city (which will contribute a parking lot and restrooms), Quarry Gardens has been funded out-of-pocket by the Thieblots. And, of course, McIntire is moving more slowly given that a public input process, phased design and the slog of multimillion-dollar fundraising are part of its process.
But the two projects share an aspect of cleanup and remediation that, Bleam says, is another contemporary touchstone. As in New York’s Freshkills Park and High Line, the notion of reclaiming an industrial site, or abused piece of land, is one that local governments and the public can easily support.
While the 8.5-acre MBG site doesn’t have a known industrial past, it’s typical of a disturbed, neglected urban landscape. Melbourne Road and the new parkway form two of its sides; a third is a railroad track atop a high embankment. Invasive autumn olive grows in thickets under the tall trees; native spicebush grows cheek-by-jowl with ailanthus and poison ivy. Miller Lite cans and old tires dot the ground, lending the spooky air of a place that’s mostly used by people committing some kind of transgression. And the creek that bisects the site flows between deeply eroded red clay banks.
“We’ll remediate the stream,” said Burrell while leading the May 3 tour, “and make sure it’s an asset.”
Water is an obvious focal point in any garden design, and at Quarry Gardens, the pools created by the soapstone industry are an aesthetic boon. Their near-vertical walls, marked by slight stairsteps, make a moody backdrop, angular and machined in some places and naturally textured in others. “Sites are not static; they have changed over time,” says Bleam. “The industrial past was not great for the environment, but incredibly beautiful in certain strange ways.”
The design at Quarry Gardens takes the rock mining of the past in stride. Huge chunks of discarded soapstone form the Giant’s Stairs, leading to a spot where CUH has planted trillium and bluebells among the rue anemone that was already growing. In another spot, a tumble of rock is designated a “waterside talus,” and prickly pear cacti are planted in the shallow veneer of soil atop the stone.
CUH’s Rachel Floyd, who designed these plant galleries in response to the biological surveying her husband and business partner, Devin, conducted, says that even with CUH’s rigorously native-focused methodology, beauty has to be a consideration. “There’s a bit of push and pull there,” she says, given that Quarry Gardens will depend on volunteers and visitors to fulfill its raison d’etre. If visitors are expecting something more like Lewis Ginter, they may be disappointed, but perhaps they can be reoriented toward a different kind of beauty.
“It’s easy to get seduced by the aesthetics as a designer, but aesthetics can’t be the primary factor for design; that has to be promoting biodiversity,” says Rachel Floyd. Still, she acknowledges, “We weight some things more heavily than others because they’re beautiful.” Certainly, interest has been keen in the Quarry Gardens: It welcomed 1,200 visitors in 2017, its first season.
While the McIntire Botanical Garden is likely to have a focus on native plants, it remains to be seen whether that will be defined as narrowly as it has been at Quarry Gardens. There, CUH has attempted to include only plants with a local genotype—meaning seeds are sourced from within a 15-mile radius whenever possible. Genetic differences, and relationships with fungi and other organisms, mean that members of the same species in two distant locations (say, Virginia and Pennsylvania) are not interchangeably native. So rather than simply ordering plants from wherever they’re sold, the Floyds and their team have gone into the field, collecting and propagating seed with as local a provenance as possible.
“It’s a level of perfection that can never be reached, but we can get closer,” says Devin Floyd.
Of course, removing invasives is part of the equation, too. Rachel Floyd leads teams of workers who pull out miscanthus, stiltgrass and other unwanted plants, before and after they put in natives. To date they’ve planted nearly 50,000 individual plants, as many as 1,000 a day. About 100 native species have been added to Quarry Gardens that weren’t present in CUH’s initial surveys.
There are always some casualties, of course, but Rachel is pleased to see that some areas planted just two years ago are already well-established. “It’s taking care of itself,” she says.
There’s no practical way to water a place like Quarry Gardens, and letting plants be fairly self-reliant is part of the appeal of a native garden. “If you plant the things that want to grow,” says Bernice Thieblot simply, “they’re likely to do well.”
It’s a mindset that could hardly be a starker contrast to the one represented by the heavy machinery that once cut into the earth here.
Thieblot likes to point out the tree-with-sardine-can as an emblem of Schuyler’s industrial past, and the Quarry Gardens Visitors Center functions partly as a mini museum on that topic. (There’s even a model railroad to recall the trains that once carried workers to the quarries.) Yet the Thieblots are still cleaning up after the past, too. After big rains, they take a boat out onto the quarry pools to snag trash that turns up in the water.
One thing is for certain—in Central Virginia, no matter the history of a site, something will grow there. And it may be more likely to be part of the native ecosystem than one would assume. “We were amazed at the number of the native species already here,” says Thieblot, “although that site had been brutally worked over until 1975. It’s a story of resilience.”
What is soapstone?
Take a look at your neighbor’s newly renovated kitchen, and there’s a good chance you’ll find the answer—soapstone has been used as a building material for decades and happens to be a hot trend in countertops right now. The dark gray, heat-resistant rock, which needs no sealing despite its softness, has been quarried in Schuyler since the late 1800s. That’s a bit of a claim to fame for the Nelson County village, as there are only a few spots in the world where soapstone is found.
The Alberene Soapstone Company changed hands—and fortunes—many times throughout the 20th century. The Quarry Gardens site alone (a fraction of the total area quarried) produced an estimated 800,000 tons of stone. At one time, 1,000 people worked in the Schuyler quarries, but after Hurricane Camille and some changes in the domestic market, the company became far less active. New investors and favorable trends have recently revived the business, though. In 2013, Stone World reported that Alberene was producing 80 to 90 tons of stone per week and employing 25 people—and the next year, Canadian-based industry giant Polycor became an ownership partner. Today, Alberene is the only remaining American supplier of soapstone.