What You Might Not Know About the Norfolk Botanical Garden

LanternAsia 2016 at Norfolk Botanical Gardens -  Image source

LanternAsia 2016 at Norfolk Botanical Gardens - Image source

Just about every month, for the past year, we’ve have a workshop at the Norfolk Botanical Garden where we guide a group of enthusiastic adults through crafting their very own living centerpiece.

Over this past year, we’ve seen headlines of some exciting exhibits and changes at the garden, such as LanternAsia, the magnificent centuries old Chinese lantern display that took place there back in the early spring. Team Glass Gardens member, Alexandra Cantwell, posted a photo of hops being grown there recently, a project that she helped get started. The hops have made their way into a small batch brew from O’Connor Brewing Company, where she also works. (keep reading for more on the hops & beer).

All this new life coming out of the garden had me wondering, where did it all begin?

Tommy T & Fred H set out to rival Charleston, SC

The idea came from Norfolk’s city manager Thomas P. Thomson, and Fredrick Huette, a young horticulturist, around 1935. (Yes, that’s the same Fred Huette that is the namesake of the Fred Huette Center where we always have the spring craft and plant sale in the heart of Ghent). They wanted to rival the azalea gardens of Charleston, SC that attracted so many tourists and believed Norfolk’s climate was suitable for doing so.

In 1938, in the height of the Great Depression, a Works Progress Administration awarded a $76, 278 grant to turn the forested 75 plus acre swampland into a spectacular garden for the city to enjoy, and to hopefully attract tourists and boost the economy. The city employed 220 African American men and women to clear the dense vegetation, build a levy to hold back the lake, and plant four thousand azaleas, two thousand rhododendrons, and several thousand more variets of shrubs and plants. They made immense progress in that first year on the Azalea Garden, the name back then.

More funding was secured to continue expanding the garden and after a couple more name changes they settled on Norfolk Botanical Garden in 1958 when the Old Dominion Horticultural Society took over maintenance of the garden. The garden only grew in popularity and just as Thomas and Huette had hoped, tourists were coming to visit from all over the world.

Workshops, hops & hiking...oh my!

Today, the garden expands across 175 acres, which includes 52 themed gardens that are accessible via the five plus miles of walking trails, by boat or tram. The programs offered there, like the terrarium workshop we have there every month, reach over twenty thousand children and adults each year. Volunteers dedicate more than seventeen thousand hours a year to all aspects of garden operations.

Alex and John at a elementary school workshop about plants

Alex and John at a elementary school workshop about plants

We’re incredibly grateful to be able to host workshops at the garden and to know Alex who often brings her vast knowledge of plants to our children’s workshops as a representative of the garden. We’re also super excited about their new Hop & Grain garden, which you can visit on October 15th for their Day of Beer & Roses from 9AM - 5PM. They'll have yard games, live music, food trucks, and will be serving a very special beer at the event.

Alexandra wanted to share a bit more about the Grain & Hop Project at the Norfolk Botanical Garden and their Day of Beer and Roses coming up:

"We'll be serving a beer (1 of 2) brewed with hops grown in the garden itself this year! Very exciting since they’ve only been in the ground a few months. Hops generally take 3 years to reach maturity. The hops we have are chinook, nugget, and centennial. We’ve even used fresh herbs from the new sustainable vegetable garden as well as fresh hops in the randall at O’connors, freshly infusing the beer as it’s poured! The barley is two row endeavor, and Copper Fox Distillery, who the brewery uses for malted grains, is our sponsor on that front. The barley growing at the garden is from Bay’s Best Feed on the Northern Neck, helping maintain the local ingredients.  
The idea of a Norfolk based beer, where I grow the ingredients at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, is something I’ve wanted to do since I started working at O’Connors, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have such a supportive, creative, and community-centric boss like Kevin O’Connor. The production staff also deserves a huge thank you, providing valuable input on what plants they’d most like to use when brewing. The support and enthusiasm from O’Connor’s tasting room staff is incredible as well. They don’t get enough recognition in my opinion. As cicerone certified beer servers, they’re already exceptionally knowledgeable on the subject of beer, but they have an entirely different perspective now as well, coming from the horticulture side of beer and brewing. O’Connor’s even offers beer schools weekly on various subjects!

Hops grown at the Norfolk Botanical Garden. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Cantwell

Hops grown at the Norfolk Botanical Garden. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Cantwell

Perhaps the most meaningful thing was when I had to mulch the garden, which is incredibly labor intensive, members of the production staff, retail staff, event staff, and even Kevin himself came out to the garden and put their own sweat equity in on a brutally hot and humid day. My coworkers at the botanical garden are incredibly supportive as well, helping with maintenance, harvesting, and knowledge for the agricultural related projects. They also never shy away from the taste testing portion! I’m incredibly excited to see this project come to life, and even more excited to help educate the public on the craft beer industry, focusing on an immensely important, yet overlooked aspect of beer: where the ingredients come from! Overall, I see this project benefiting both companies, allowing different demographics to cross over and be exposed to things they may have otherwise not  experienced."


Read more about this history here.