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Into the Garden: Kanawha Garden Club behind Davis Park facelift

Chip Ellis
Kanawha Garden Club members meet with landscape architect Tim Forren to discuss plans for Charleston's Davis Park. From left are Barbie McCabe, Forren, Kathy Becker and Kathy Muehlman.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In April 2011, members of the Kanawha Garden Club surveyed the users of Davis Park to see what city dwellers and office workers want from the park.Safety, smoking food, and flowers were among the answers.The 90-year-old club, in conjunction with the Municipal Beautification Commission, has embarked on an ambitious three-phase upgrade to the beloved downtown Charleston green space. The organization enlisted landscape architect and urban planner Tim Forren, who has donated his time and talent to create a master plan that includes tree work, renewed benches, new planting and moving some existing bushes for the park that covers more than half a downtown block.Recent visitors will notice that the city grounds crew, under the competent guidance of Public Grounds Department Director Junior Goodwin, has been busy removing some dead and dying trees and pruning the huge yew. The phase one plan of removing the lower branches of the yew isn't just for beauty; it's a safety feature, as well."In urban planning, the trend is 'see through for safety,'" Kanawha Garden Club member Kathy Muehlman explained. The lower limbs of the large yew have been cut out, leaving an interesting view of the twisted trunk and letting light into the formerly dark place. "One park user said they already feel much safer with the trimming of the yew."One large group of the existing benches has been disassembled, power washed, stained a beautiful color (Sherwin Williams' "Acadia Blue"), and the hardware was replaced.In phases two and three, four Bradford pear trees will be removed and replaced with less messy, more park-appropriate trees. Bradfords require a lot of pruning and are weak trees prone to wind and weather damage. Amelamchier canadensos (common name Service Berry), Acer rubrum 'Red Sunset' (maple), will be used. A redbud and dogwood also will be planted.A collection of ferns (including maidenhair, cinnamon, royal and Christmas ferns) is planned in the shady spot under the trees.Kanawha Garden Club has committed $50,000 toward the project, and hopes others will contribute, including area businesses bordering Davis Park. Members believe that any Davis Park improvements directly benefit the quality of Charleston.They have already spent thousands of dollars to fund phase one -- including $7,913 paid to Sun Comfort Inc., for the refurbishing of the initial set of benches.The group is applying for grants, and donations are welcome for the project. It will cost $22,000 just to refinish the rest of the benches -- the group expects the total project to cost $150,000, including in-kind work by city crews.To donate, make checks payable to Kanawha Garden Club and mail to Elizabeth D. Keightley, 22 Brittany Woods Road, Charleston, WV 25314. The Kanawha Garden Club is a 501(c)3 organization.Forren has ideas to make the garden an interactive, learning space. Instead of tags and markers on individual plants, he envisions a large drawing/map of the space with plant identification.There will be many West Virginia native plants, including a variety of hellebores. "In the survey, people said they want flowers," Muehlman said.
Club member Barbie McCabe said they will add color with "Super Elfin Samba Mix impatiens" in the flowerbeds."It's the little things that have made a difference," club member Kathy Becker said. She pointed to the trashcan liners that have been added to the black wrought-iron fixtures that were already in place in the park. The liners keep the trash bags in place, and provide a neater, cleaner look.The club would love to see food vendors frequent the park in the future, a request from many of the park's current users.Muehlman said she interviewed one woman in an office that overlooks the park who said she chose the job in Charleston over other offers partly because of the office's close proximity to Davis Park.Smoking is another facet of the park that must be addressed. Smoking areas have been suggested by some park users. Club members are looking at all options.Club members Becker, McCabe and Muehlman stressed that they want to preserve the heritage of the park while catering to current needs.
The area became a park 100 years ago, when Henry Gassaway Davis purchased the land. Then, in 1981, the city added the adjacent YMCA land, and the late Mary Price Ratrie donated the land that was once a gas station along Summers Street. Ratrie also hired noted landscape architect Alice Ireys to design the park. Forren's motto, "Use what is already there," guided his redesign. Forren worked with the late Ireys' plans, which were rediscovered by Kanawha Garden Club from Ireys' Boston archives.Kanawha Garden Club has enlisted the chairmen of Charleston's Beautification Committee, Mary Jane Vanderwilt and Carter Giltinan, to provide history and civic involvement. Goodwin, whose team oversees all the plantings downtown, has been working with the city crews on pruning, planting and moving existing shrubs. Lighting engineer Mike Abernethy inspected the lighting and determined it to be sufficient, and will continue to monitor the lighting as new phases are implemented. Tom Vasale, retired horticulturalist, has added his expertise.Kanawha Garden Club has 45 members, and Ann Orders is the new president. Over the years, the club has dedicated its energies, manpower and funds to many gardening projects, including Celebration Station, Ruffner Park, Spring Hill Cemetery, the area in front of the Clay Center, Bridge Road plantings and the garden on Justice Row at the entrance to the Carriage Trail.National Public Gardens DayFriday, May 11,  is National Public Gardens Day. This day of celebration is planned to raise awareness of America's public gardens and their role in promoting environmental stewardship, education, plant and water conservation in communities nationwide.So many gardeners turn to public spaces to get ideas for design, plant selection, use of native and adaptable plants, and gardening methods. Non-gardeners have just enjoyed these green oases as great places to visit.I searched for gardens within 100 miles of my home in Charleston that are members of the American Public Gardens Association, a group that promotes community green spaces around the country. The only member that appeared in its database is the Huntington Museum of Art, 2033 McCoy Road, Huntington. This is a beautiful spot for enjoying the great outdoors.We are blessed in our area to have many beautiful parks, gardens and other green spots that are not official members of this organization. Be sure to visit (and support!) a local public garden soon.Spring Flower SwapLITTLE BIRCH -- The 11th annual Braxton County Spring Flower and Plant Swap will be held from 9-11 a.m. Saturday, May 12, at Little Birch School.Rules for the event: No money is to be exchanged, each participant must bring at least one plant to exchange (more are encouraged), and plants can't be exchanged until 9 a.m.New this year is a class on edible landscaping at 10 a.m., taught by master gardeners, and at 1:30 p.m., there will be a garden tour held at a Flatwoods residence. Information on the tour will be provided at the plant swap.Call 304-765-2994 or 304-765-2049 for information.Gardening tips for todayAccording to the West Virginia University Extension Service, this week is perfect for the following gardening tasks:Seed annual flowers, summer squash and cucumbers, late celery and sweet corn outdoors. Plant early celery and tomato plants.Herb and Tea FestivalThe West Virginia Herb Association and the Charleston Tea Festival present the 2012 Spring Herb and Tea Festival from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 12 at India Center, 800 Green Rd. in South Charleston.The festival's theme is "Everything's Coming up Roses." Herbal products, teas and craft items will be sold.The program includes classes, hands-on workshops, tea tasting and mediation. Noted ethnobotantist Hassan Amjad, M.D. will speak. The event is free and open to the public. Call 304-577-9034 or visit Sara Busse at or 304-348-1249.
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