With a focus on ‘mindful gardening,’ newly accredited Freedom Park Arboretum promotes environmental conservation

Soon after taking over an inventory project to document every tree species in the Williamsburg Botanical Garden at Freedom Park, Master Gardener Tree Steward Elizabeth McCoy realized something: The site met all of the requisites to qualify as a Level 1 Arboretum.

So in January of 2020, McCoy and eight other Master Gardener volunteers from James City County—including Judith Alberts, Board Chair of the Williamsburg Botanical Garden and Freedom Park Arboretum—came together to finish the lengthy process of carefully documenting and labeling each species with the goal of applying for accreditation. The group carried out the effort with extensive assistance from Donna Ware, a retired research professor of biology and Curator of the Herbarium at the College of William & Mary.

The volunteers had their work cut out for them.

WBG volunteers celebrate Level I Arboretum accreditation with James City County Parks. Left to Right: Dr. Donna M.E. Ware, Deborah Bussert, Judith Alberts, Alister Perkinson, William Dichtel. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth McCoy.)

Achieving arboretum accreditation is no small feat. In fact, as of May 2022, there are only 527 accredited arboreta worldwide, according to the Morton Register of Arboreta.

Particularly daunting for the volunteers was the fact that the inventory effort was to be carried out in the middle of winter—when the trees were absent of leaves and snow and ice created plenty of challenges.

To receive the sought-after accreditation, McCoy and Albert’s team had to demonstrate that the park’s arboretum met numerous professional standards as determined by ArbNet, a database that seeks to enhance professional standards within the international arboretum community.

The group would need to complete a lengthy application process. While an arboretum is typically defined as a botanical garden featuring a collection of trees and shrubs, the gardeners had to identify at least 25 different species in order to receive the Level 1 designation.

They also had to prove that the site had a clearly defined purpose, was governed by an organizational body and managed by staff or volunteers and was accessible to the general public.

Alberts said that the Garden, which is open seven days a week from 7 a.m to sunset, checked off all of those boxes. In addition, it far exceeded the 25-species minimum requirement. Upon the conclusion of the inventory process, the Master Gardeners had identified a total of 154 different woody species, many of which are indigenous to James City County.

Spanning 600 acres, Freedom Park has a rich history that can be traced back to the 17th century. The Williamsburg Botanical Garden and newly accredited arboretum are located in close proximity to one of the nation’s first Free Black Settlements (pictured above), which was founded in 1803. (Photo courtesy of Judy Kinshaw-Ellis.)

Now known as the Williamsburg Botanical Garden and Freedom Park Arboretum (WBG-FPA), the tranquil site aims to be a resource to educate visitors about environmental conservation, including the importance of native plants and the prevention of invasive species.

The WBG-FPA also seeks to promote sustainable gardening practices for typical gardens throughout the Virginia Peninsula area.

Alberts and McCoy said they hope those who visit the new Arboretum will realize the importance of participating in gardening efforts that contribute to the health of the local environment.

“People are planting terrible things in their yard,” Alberts said, noting that every plant and tree should play a role in supporting the ecosystem.

According to Alberts, the mission of the WBG-FPA is guided by the principles of Dr. Doug Tallamy, a renowned American entomologist and author. Tallamy urges home gardeners to take conservation into their own hands by growing native plants and trees that sustain wildlife and insects.

Of particular concern to Alberts and McCoy is the fact that some of the most commonly grown plants and trees in the area are invasive and harmful.

One example cited by Alberts is the Callery pear tree. While it’s a popular choice in local yards due to its aesthetic appeal, it’s native to China—and it’s also invasive. “Nothing eats it. There are no moths, there are no butterflies, there are no beetles,” she said of the tree. “It is pushing out the plants that we want to have and that we need to support wildlife.”

The Williamsburg Botanical Garden and Freedom Park Arboretum offer a tranquil environment for visitors to unwind and enjoy the peaceful sights and sounds of nature.

Invasive species of trees and plants can have wide-ranging, detrimental impacts on a local ecosystem by causing a decline in vital pollinators, wildlife and insects. But when people grow native trees, even in their own backyards, they’re helping to contribute to what Alberts calls “the web of life.”

“The garden has really worked at honing its mission and vision over the past 18 months, and it is summed up in one phrase: ‘Mindful gardening to preserve planet earth,’” she said.

McCoy also said that sustainable gardening practices are more important than ever, given recent overdevelopment in the region. She noted that while trees are a vital part of the lifeblood of the community, the area is rapidly losing them because of misguided expansion.

“The character of the community is being changed forever as each patch of forest is cleared for wider roads, new neighborhoods and expanded shopping,” McCoy said. “We are losing an important resource, and our hope is to preserve the tree species within the Arboretum and perhaps draw visitors’ attention to their beauty and greater purposes in our shared environment.”

Those who visit the WBG-FPA will be able to see, identify and learn about native trees that benefit the local environment.

Guests can bring their phones and scan any of the metal tags attached to the trees. They’ll then be taken directly to the Plants Map website, where the Arboretum has documented all of its species.

A Willow Oak tree in the Arboretum features a metal tag with a QR code. Visitors can scan the code on their mobile device to be taken to the Plants Map website, which provides information about every tree species at the site.

In addition, visitors can access a digital tree tour of the garden by scanning the QR code located on a poster on the on-site kiosk.

“It takes you to a description of each different area of the garden and the woody species in that section,” McCoy said of the digital tour.

Local residents who want to grow native plants and trees that contribute to environmental sustainability can also do so by shopping at the WBG-FPA’s Honor Box Plant Sale, which is running daily from 7 a.m. until sunset, now through May 31.

Alberts said that prior to the pandemic, volunteers from the Garden would bring over many native plants and have a big one-day sale. But after Covid shut the event down, the group decided to transition to a contactless system featuring an honor box to allow people to self-pay. The system has worked well, and the group continues to rely on it.

People interested in purchasing native plants can stop by at any time during the sale’s duration. Once customers have selected their plants—which are labeled with price tags—they can pay either by dropping money into an on-site lockbox or by using a QR code to pay online.

“We’ve taken a very strong stance that, number one, none of the plants we’re selling are invasive. We’re focusing on as many native plants as possible,” Alberts said. “Everything we’re selling is part of the positive side of that web of life.”

McCoy also noted that one of the key roles of the WBG-FPA is to serve as a demonstration garden to show the community what grows well in the area.

“The majority of the plants in the garden are native, and not just native, but they’re indigenous to James City County,” said McCoy. “People can come to the garden and get some good ideas of what to plant. And we always love to help our visitors.”

A poster at the WBG-FPA provides details about the current native plant sale. Guests can pay for plants they wish to purchase by dropping money in the lockbox or scanning the poster’s QR code.

In addition to the Honor Box Plant Sale, the WBG-FPA will also be hosting the 37th Annual Native Plant Society Sale on Saturday, May 14th, from 9:00 am – 1:00 pm. Experts will be on hand during the event to answer questions and help guests select native plants that are suited to the region.

The WBG-FPA is located at 5537 Centerville Road in Williamsburg.

For more information about sustainable gardening, see Elizabeth McCoy’s recently published articles, “For the Love of Trees” and “Invitation to a ‘Home Grown National Park.’

This article has been updated to correct that the WBG-FPA is open daily from 7 a.m to sunset.

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