Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Changeover Magic of the Historic Terraces

By Sarah Leach Smith
Photos by Cecilia Xie

Horticulturist Jan Watson installs new plants.
If you have ever visited Sarah P. Duke Gardens, you probably took a photo of, or maybe a selfie in, the photogenic Historic Terraces. Even if you have never been able to visit the Gardens in person, it is highly likely that the photo that popped up in your Google search was of the Terraces.

Since 1939, the Terraces have been a widely recognized icon of Duke Gardens. Designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman, an American landscape architect, the Terraces have remained largely unchanged since their creation over 75 years ago. Seven levels make up the garden, which was built into a naturally occurring slope. Curator Mike Owens is currently preparing for the twice-a-year display changeover and has offered an inside scoop into what this process is like.

Each June and October, Owens and his team of horticulturists (Jan Watson and Heather Seifert) begin the changeover. The new planting designs, however, are created as many as six months in advance! Each design is based on a theme, and the designs that Owens comes up with have only gotten more complex over time. 

A Terrace bed awaiting new plants.
“We used to use just tulips, and it would be a tulip show. Now, we probably have around 15 different bulb species – Crocus, Narcissus, then the tulips, and later in the spring you’ll see the Allium coming up.” Throughout the bulb display there is a variety of herbaceous material, including pansies, Dianthus and foxgloves. Owens likes using combinations like this, as well as techniques like bulb layering, to help extend the display season. 

The changeover of the Terraces does not happen all at once. The roughest-looking plants will be removed and replaced first. For the fall changeover, Owens, Watson and Seifert will begin in mid-October and wrap up with the bulb installation by Thanksgiving.

October’s changeover is designed to last until after Duke’s spring commencement, which occurs in mid-May. To keep the plants looking happy and healthy until then, Owens has several successful methods. Each bed has its own pop-up irrigation system that ensures the plants stay quenched. The beds are fertilized almost exclusively with feather meal, which is made from poultry feathers and is rich in nitrogen. “I think it has really helped ‘pump up’ the display,” Owens said. 

Horticulturist Heather Seifert hard at work!
Keep an eye out for this talented team in the Terraces this fall. As the weather warms up in the spring, make sure to come back for a visit – and a great photo in an iconic part of Duke Gardens!

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