Sunday, June 17, 2012

Gass Garden Backgrounder

The news column these past two weeks featured Jill Hudock's backgrounder on her involvement in the creation of the Gass Garden, reprinted below.  In addition, the Public Opinion conducted an interview with Bill and Cindy Stead resulting in this article that appeared today, containing additional insight into the effort.  Here's a small excerpt, but read the whole thing.
Since chairing the Gass garden committee, the Steads have become experts on Patrick Gass, who took extensive notes while on the trip with Lewis and Clark. The couple learned all about him by collecting reference material that they found in used bookstores and libraries.

"He was born in 1771 and lived for 99 years," said Cindy Stead. "Filled with energy, vitality and curiosity, he was an adventurous spirit. His skill was carpentry, but he volunteered and lobbied to promote his interest in going on the expedition. He eventually was elected sergeant by a popular vote of the men on the trip."

The Steads worked closely with Master Gardener Jill Hudock, a landscape designer, to design the garden and choose the plants to fill it. After poring over the reference materials and, they were able to choose plants that fit into three categories.
Full plant list for Phase I can be found at this earlier blog post.

Blank Slate
 Here's Jill's whole article, accompanied with some pictures taken by Jenn Wetzel and posted to the Penn State Extension Facebook Page on Friday, June 15th.  Writes Jill:
If you’re an educator, history buff or a plant nut I have exciting news! Even if you’re not, you may still find value in the newest horticultural adventure taking place in Chambersburg. The adventure is actually a “Project” (with a purposeful capital P) known as “The Gass Garden”. Though still in infancy, it has already garnered a broad range of appeal. I am hoping in time The Gass Garden will be known as a proven winner; a place where history, education and horticulture meet.

In January 2011, I was delighted to be asked to design The Gass Garden even though I had no real idea who its namesake, Patrick Gass, was. I had walked by the blue PA Historic Marker many times on my way into the Franklin County Extension Office. Sure, I’d read it, but not internalized it. Its brief inscription didn’t have enough information to pique my interest. Sergeant Patrick Gass, master carpenter, was an integral part of the famous 1803-06 Lewis and Clark Expedition. He lived in the stone house (currently County property) as a young boy.

Hydrangea arborescens known as Sevenbark, or Ninebark
My contribution as the garden’s designer follows, focusing on the research, the design, the plants and the intended outcome.

Master Gardeners Bill and Cindy Stead are the Project’s Co-Chairs. The Steads have already done extensive research, uncovering historical books on Patrick Gass and his association with Lewis and Clark. They’ve spent over two years preparing for this Project. Bill has drawn a detailed, scaled site analysis complete with measurements, sun positioning and soil testing results. They have collected and referenced eight books on the subject.

Their timing was excellent. Winter is my favorite season to read and I’ve always loved biographies. This was going to be fun as well as educational. Double score!! They lent me several books which I enjoyed immensely. I learned in great detail about a pivotal period in our nation’s development.
Potentilla (Cinquefoil)
President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery westward into the wilderness, searching for a water route to the Pacific. Along the way he hoped to gain information about new territories filled with never before seen flora and fauna. The Corps of Discovery was a small force, each man handpicked with specifically chosen skills. Patrick Gass made the journey possible through his carpentry skills. He supervised and built rafts, longboats, shelters and forts.

Historical author Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage” gave me valuable insight of the life, the scenery and the possible plants to incorporate into this new venture. As I read, I took notes to help me re-create the feeling of the west.

It became clear that my intention would not be to duplicate, as that would be preposterous. The grand scale of the grasslands, the majesty of the mountains and the challenges of crossing major rivers could never be shrunken into our 70 by 80 sized plot. I knew right away that this Project would require careful planning and extra special effort to create a landscape reminiscent of the central plains and Northwest territories. It’s a challenge we are ready to explore and conquer!

When starting a new project I like to be inspired by a concept. Concepts can be based on a favorite plant, color or an idea. The Gass Garden’s multi-layered functions are considerable.

First of all, it’s a public garden. Public gardening is a different animal. A designer must consider who the audience will be, what their motivation is for visiting and what is to be accomplished during their visit. Clear concepts need to be in place, as it is easy to be distracted. Too many divergent ingredients not only spoil the soup, but the appetite as well.

The Gass Garden’s role as a public garden is to honor history through the horticultural discoveries made by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This is foremost on my agenda. While my designs are form-driven, and I will adhere to that process to create a pleasing composition, this Project requires major focus on individual plants.

“The Definitive Journals of Lewis and Clark, Volume 12: Herbarium” edited by Gary Moulton, contains the 177 plant species brought back by the Expedition. This is my primary reference, as well as the internet. Last winter I spent over 100 hours reading and surfing the web’s horticultural sites to compile a short list of possible “Lewis and Clark plants” for inclusion.

The garden is also intended to be used as a teaching arena. Plants and their history will be an important part of the display. Plants will be chosen for their contribution to our country’s development. My goal as a designer is create interesting areas that will entice learning.

By visiting many public gardens over the years, I’ve gotten a sense of what appeals to me. And hopefully that will appeal to others as well.

Wide clean paths, beauty to draw in the visitor, and clear, easily read signage are welcoming attributes. A well-tended space speaks volumes in that regard. Visitors should want to come again, in perhaps another season, to see what’s happening. There should be “magic” in the air. It’s a feeling one gets when one knows things are “right”. And that, to me, is the essence of a well-designed space, public or private.

Plants discovered by Lewis and Clark need to meet the following guidelines to be considered for possible inclusion:
  • Must be suitable for our climate, soil and, maybe most importantly, “behave”. My research has uncovered numerous plants that would threaten our local ecosystems and wildlife. Plant selection is of utmost importance and will be done to the best of our knowledge. 
  • Introduce plants that will be desirable for the home gardener. As an artist, I’m always looking for more crayons to add to my box. This Project may require shipping plants from the territories discovered by Lewis and Clark. They will, once again, travel back East. It will be exciting to see and learn about these “new” plants, plus discover their best use.
  • Design with “the best of the best” of these plants to create a pleasant gardening experience. While the goal of this garden is certainly educational, it must pass the beauty standard. The Gass Garden is a public garden on a busy road. It is a garden that will be seen by everyone visiting the Franklin County Extension’s Main Office.
Here are two examples of plants worthy of consideration:

Some of the plants have been named to honor individuals of the time period. Frederick Pursh, a German-American botanist, who assembled Lewis and Clark’s flora, named the annual “Clarkia pulchella” for the Expedition’s chronicler, William Clark. The species name, “pulchella” means beautiful. Check out  to see if you agree and for its history. Research further to discover an interesting scientific movement Clarkia pulchella exemplifies. See what I mean about enticing folks to learn? This garden promises to be full of remarkable associations.

One of the most exciting additions recently planted is “Acer circinatum”, the Vine Maple. From the Latin: Acer means “sharp”, as in the maple’s pointed leaves, and circinatum means “circular”, as in the general leaf shape. This tree-shrub is new to me and to have acquired a large specimen is wonderful. It was first discussed in William Clark’s journal entry on February 10, 1806. The Expedition was camped at Fort Clatsop, Oregon near the Columbia River. We’re looking forward to fall when its grape-vine-like foliage turns brilliant orange- red. With a projected growth of 25’ tall by 30’wide, we should be in for quite a show at maturity.

Perhaps there will be judgment from many factions, which is to be expected. We will all be learning what will grow and be beautiful here. We must remember we will be dealing with some unfamiliar specimens to our growing area. Above all, this is an experiment, much like the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Unknown territory, unknown results, and like them, the high aspirations of completing the mission with flying colors.

My strategy is to choose Lewis and Clark plants first, as well as plants mentioned in their journals and then decide where they will be best suited. Next, I will look at plants that were known to the horticultural world by July 4, 1826. This date signifies the ending of an era in American history. Thomas Jefferson, who commissioned the Expedition, died on that date. It was also the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

While dating on plants is an often sketchy endeavor, we won’t quibble over a few years. This is not a purist’s garden. The goal is to represent an historical landscape using the plants as they were known in that time period. 

Most assuredly, we will be using more recently introduced plants for practicality’s sake. They may be similar to a Lewis and Clark plant but without possible environmental issues. Or just because they add beauty.

A visitor to the Gass Garden will be treated to labeled plants. Lewis and Clark discoveries will be marked with a historical placard. Varieties of the time period will have a different marker designation. Plants without any special markers will be “newer” additions, those added after 1826. All will be identified on the general landscape plan, either on display or available in the Extension Office. These details are still in the works and may take several years to perfect while the garden itself evolves.

As with all newly established gardens, patience will be key. I’ve read it takes seven years to create a garden. What the author meant is that it takes that long for the intended original plan to mature. This may not even consider subsequent adjustments. As I have witnessed in my own garden, the seven year “rule” has merit.

When starting a project it’s important to have clear expectations. As with all projects, one must be flexible to adjust to the vagaries of the situation. Since the Gass Garden Committee has just installed most of Phase One, we’ve barely dipped our toes in the water. Even at this early stage, we’ve already encountered plant selection and procurement challenges. While encouraged by what we’ve accomplished, we now have a better understanding of the effort required to make the next phase a reality.

Thomas Jefferson was an avid plantsman, anxiously awaiting his team’s success.

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous…” His quote encourages us to achieve, even now.

Phase One is almost complete. It is a small area adjacent to the parking area, welcoming you to Franklin County Extension. We will continue to maintain Phase One, research labeling and major educational displays while the next phase is designed.

There will continue to be much preparation in creating this fascinating look into our nation’s horticultural heritage. There are many avenues to explore and with each step we become closer to creating a garden for many purposes. We hope you’ll take a few moments now and then to stop by and check the progress. The Master Gardener Blog has photos of the Committee in action as well as a plant list. You can view just the Gass Garden entries from the blog here.

It took the Corps of Discovery three years to accomplish their mission. The Master Gardener Gass Garden Committee aims to create a garden worthy of their achievements. We plan to create a winner; I know we have a great team. It will take everyone doing their best. It’s the American spirit that all great explorations need to succeed!

Representatives of the Master Gardener Gass Garden committee will be on hand at the Penn State Extension Open House on Wednesday, June 20th showing off their efforts to date and available to answer questions. Come out and see what Penn State Extension offers Franklin County citizens.

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