Ellen Hrabovsky was just leaving her woodshop when she picked up the phone. She had spent the past few hours cutting pieces of wood, routing out letters, and hand-painting trail signs. These signs, she told me, are just a fraction of the wooden creations she’s built for the West Virginia Botanic Garden (WVBG) over the past 20 years.
Hrabovsky’s woodshop and home abut the WVBG property, an 85-acre parcel that blends architectural gardens with hearty hardwood and hemlock forests. She started walking and building trails through these woods long before the property became the WVBG. “One of our biggest assets is our forests,” she says. Because the area has never been commercially logged, the forests are old, diverse, and healthy.
Sowing the Garden
Since the late 1800s, Tibbs Run, a stream traversing through the property, was used to supply water to Morgantown. A reservoir was constructed in 1912, and although Morgantown switched its water source in 1969, it wasn’t drained until 1980. As the water filtered out, uncertainties about the future of the land flooded in.
Ideas to create a botanic garden in West Virginia started brewing in the early 1980s, but early members were still searching for a location more than decade later. While scoping out the Tibbs Run Reservoir, the founders realized the prior land use created a diverse array of environments ideally suited for a botanic garden. “It’s a microcosm of all these different habitats that you might find throughout West Virginia,” says WVBG executive director Philip Smith, “which made a lot of sense for us as we want to curate a collection of plants that were culturally significant as well as appropriate for the land.”
In 1999, the city leased the property to the WVBG and supporters got to work. Unlike other botanic gardens around the country, there was no large endowment or foundation support to launch the project, leaving its fate in the hands of dedicated volunteers. “It was all grassroots,” says Smith. “Volunteer support has been foundational for the garden since day one.”
Supporters organized fundraising campaigns and events to kickstart the garden’s growth, including selling memberships and offering ticketed “Gardens of the Mon” tours to showcase home gardens around Morgantown. Volunteers also began cleaning up the land, which was essentially a dump site at the time. Hrabovsky recalls mounds of tires and trash, campfires left burning, sleeping bags, tents, and even a VW bus. “In the beginning, we had so much cleaning up to do and basic maintenance to take care of that working full time on the gardens wasn’t feasible,” she says.
But once the massive amounts of trash were removed, the land took on a new appearance, highlighting the diversity of plants and wildlife that defines Appalachia.
A Hodgepodge of Habitats
The WVBG is home to mixed forests, meadows, and wetlands, which support a broad range of plants and animals. “With so many different habitats, we’re still discovering what species we have here,” Smith says.
Because the area was never commercially logged, many of the hemlock trees are more than 200 years old. These forests contain several mosses and lichens rarely found other places in Appalachia. By maintaining open meadows, the WVBG provides habitat for hawks and other predatory birds.
There are also multiple types of wetlands on the property. Wetlands comprise less than 0.5% of West Virginia, the lowest in the 48 contiguous states thanks to its mountainous topography. Ephemeral wetlands and an emergent scrub-shrub wetland, which was created when the reservoir dam was breached in 2017, provide excellent homes for frogs, salamanders, turtles and other critters. “It’s a whole system out there,” says Jim Anderson, a professor of forestry and natural resources at West Virginia University who leads amphibian and wetland walks at the garden. “It’s not just plants and it’s not just a garden.”
The curated gardens provide yet another hub for wildlife diversity. A pollinator garden was planted last year that attracted hundreds of bees and insect species as well as a variety of songbirds.
The natural, unmanaged habitats are a critical component of the WVBG, which is why “Tibbs Run Preserve” was added to its name in 2017. “We want to showcase what’s already here,” says Smith. “We don’t have to modify it or make it special, but we also want to have some of these other elements that county or city parks don’t have.”
Underlying these elements is a commitment to growing the WVBG in a thoughtful way that emphasizes the natural beauty of West Virginia without overpowering it. The first planted garden was established in the shade, in part because West Virginia is the third-most forested state in the country. “It was put in under the trees to show that you can have a nice garden without having to cut down all the trees,” says Hrabovsky.
Currently there are nine gardens at the WVBG, including a rhododendron garden (the state flower), a meditation garden, and a hammock haven. Other gardens are in the works, including an Appalachian garden that will showcase heritage plants of the Mountain State, such as pawpaw, ginseng, and goldenseal.
Alongside the gardens, educational opportunities have grown dramatically over the past two decades. Throughout the year, the WVBG hosts nature walks that cover everything from wildflowers and mushrooms to amphibians and birds. They also offer family and kids programs, gardening workshops, art workshops, and yoga classes.
In 2017, the WVBG opened their first building, a solar-powered house designed and donated by the WVU College of Engineering. The building was an exciting new addition that models sustainable practices while providing space for presentations, nature camps, and events.
The WVBG hosts an annual garden party and the Fall Children’s Festival, as well as a small dinner series with local chefs. Last year, they had a “Howl-O-Ween” trick-or-treat event to give back to all the dog-walkers that regularly visit the garden. Over 200 dogs attended, many in costume. New events are on the horizon as well. This July, the garden will host its first running event. “The main cause of the event is to teach people about wellness and how to live a healthy lifestyle, which includes spending time outside,” says Erin Smaldone, education director at the WVBG.
With a recently revised master plan, more changes are afoot, but the WVBG remains committed to growing in a way that honors its Appalachian heritage. “Throughout history, people in Appalachia have learned how to use the land and how to be good stewards of the land. I feel like we’re a unique type of botanic garden in how we try to model and reflect that,” says Smith.
Planting Seeds for the Next Generation
At its core, the garden is a destination for visitors and locals looking to spend time in nature. “Morgantown is becoming such an urban area that a lot of kids are never exposed to nature the way I was growing up in Preston County,” says Annette Tanner, a former board member and long-time volunteer at the WVBG. “That’s important because we all depend on the world we live in.” From helping with the Children’s Fall Festival to greeting visitors at a host station, Tanner introduces people of all ages to the garden and provides recommendations for places to explore that best suit their interests.
The desire to expose more people to nature is also a main driver of the educational programs and events organized by Smaldone. “Having a place accessible where people can just be immersed in this natural, beautiful place and learn about it really gives them an opportunity to feel like they have a sense of place,” says Smaldone. “And when you love something, you want to protect it.”
Nikki Forrester is associate editor of Highland Outdoors. She has a PhD in ecology and evolution, and can’t seem to stop writing about plants.