Reynolda Gardens is perhaps the most iconic public garden space in Winston-Salem, an area that draws visitors year-round. Originally, the estate of R.J. and Katharine Reynolds, Reynolda Gardens is made up of 134 acres of formal and greater gardens.
With its roots more than 100 years old, time has taken an inevitable toll on parts of the gardens. Gardens naturally change overtime — plants can outgrow their settings, trees can age out and weather patterns can cause challenges. So, in response, Reynolda Gardens has a lot of changes on the horizon.
Projects are already underway in the formal gardens. A complete renovation of the weeping cherry trees should start next week, which will restore the emblematic seasonal bloom to the north, east and west sides of the formal greenhouse garden. The cherry tree project was made possible through the support of Barbara and Nik Millhouse.
“This is one project of several that we feel will make an impact, showing to the public that there's investment going into the gardens,” said Reynolda Gardens Director Jon Roethling. “We've called the program 'Grow with Reynolda Gardens.'”
These weeping Japanese cherry trees have long been a focal point for garden visitors, as their bountiful spring blooms are felt as a herald of spring. Historically, many people associate Reynolda Gardens with a magical tunnel of cherry blossoms. A 1958 Raleigh News and Observer article said of Reynolda Gardens “long a spot for spring sightseers, the gardens are noted primarily for a profusion of weeping Japanese cherry trees.”
Over the years, though, the cherry trees have aged out, which is very typical of certain ornamental trees. Roethling explained that although an oak can live 100 years, a flowering cherry may only live 25 years. The original trees have long since aged out, and the mature ones still existing in the garden are at the end of their life.
“I envision what is supposed to be here is a formal alley of weeping cherries, but what we have is some older ones and then some very young ones,” Roethling said. “So, the actual design is not present. You're not getting the intended feel of this space. Even though I'm trying to look at this garden through a modern-day lens, I am also trying to always respect what the intent is and what the feel of these different spaces is supposed to be.”
Forty-four trees will be planted — six parallel to the greenhouses and 19 along the east and west sides of the greenhouse gardens. The same variety will replace what will be removed — prunus subhirtella 'Pendula,' also known as Weeping Higan Cherry. The new trees will be about 15 feet tall with a 4- to 5-inch trunk caliper.
But there is more to this cherry renovation than just planting new trees.
“Rather than just take the trees out and put new ones in, we're going whole hog in a sense,” Roethling said. “We're taking the old soil out, reworking the soil so there's really good drainage. We're going to do an anti-borer preventative on the trees.”
Roethling explained that large weeping cherries are susceptible to borers, insect attacks and disease. They also have a habit of prematurely dropping their leaves in late summer, long before any other tree. Using a combination of fresh new soil and preventative insect and disease treatments, the new cherries should be able to live long, healthy lives.
“The weeping Higan cherry is the worst in terms of susceptibility to a fungal leaf spot — which makes them drop their leaves. So, by starting with a clean slate with new soil, any fungal spores that might be inoculated in the top surface of the soil — hopefully those go away.”
So why not go with a better plant? Even with significant advancements in horticultural plant breeding, there just aren't a lot of options for a more disease-resistant variety of weeping cherry. All the newer cultivars are significantly smaller, growing only about 12 feet tall. The weeping Higan will grow to 40 feet tall.
“If we put them in, do a lot of preventative care and set them up for success, I'm hoping we'll stay ahead of any issues,” Roethling said.
Roethling says he visualizes these cherries not just in the formal gardens, but scattered throughout the greater gardens, as well.
“It's exciting," he said. "You won't have to drive to D.C. for a cherry blossom festival. Having this type of feature here spurs me even more to want to build a cherry collection on the property — the entire 134 acres.”
Removing the old trees and stumps, bringing in new soil, and installing the new large trees will greatly affect the public interaction with certain sections of the gardens. Roethling anticipates that the brunt of the project will be wrapped up before the end of the year, though. During the process, parking and access into the greenhouse gardens will be limited.
“Be prepared for part of the garden to be blocked off while work is going on,” Roethling said. “It will happen in phases — so we'll work on one side and get it all ready, then work on the other side. But it's also the downtime, when people are less likely to be coming and walking in the gardens.”
One collaborative element to this project is that the cherry wood from the oldest trees will be salvaged and used by local artisans as a way to preserve Reynolda history.
In addition to the cherry tree renovation, there are other projects already in the works. All the tea houses in the formal gardens are getting a facelift, including new cedar roofs, paint and plantings.
“We've got the tea house renovation that's going on right now, too,” Roethling said. “That's courtesy of Wendy and Mike Brenner. We also have projects looking at the greater gardens. We've got funding to allow us to start work on rehab of the trails where they're in really bad shape. Also, adding a boardwalk up along Coliseum Drive where the trail is perpetually wet.”
The formal and greater gardens of Reynolda have served as a place of sanctuary and peace for locals and visitors. These projects will make this public space even better.
“What's nice is that we're seeing members of the community that realize the value of Reynolda Gardens,” Roethling said. “They're stepping up to make sure that it's there for the community.”
Amy Dixon is an assistant horticulturist at Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University. Gardening questions or story ideas can be sent to her at www.facebook.com/WSJAmyDixon or email@example.com, with "gardening" in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101