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The Greenness of Gardens and the Conservation Garden at the North Carolina Botanical Garden

Volume 6 Number 2 - July 2009

Peter White


In the last decade, ‘green’ has become a familiar adjective for environmentally friendly practices of all sorts. There are green products, green furniture, green buildings, and green development. At the North Carolina Botanical Garden, we have been building a new ‘green’ Education Center (set to open in July 2009) and among the many ‘green’ features of the building is something we call a ‘green elevator’ (it uses no hydraulic fluid and has the most energy efficient motor we could find). One day, as I led a tour of the construction site, I found myself thinking about the growing use of the word ‘green’. This use is all very good, and even somewhat flattering to a botanist, but I found myself saying to the tour participants that day ‘let’s take back the word green - botanical gardens, botanists, and horticulturists had the world green first!’

Plants are doubly green - green in color and green because photosynthesis is the very process that takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. In another sense, though, gardens aren’t always ‘green’ in performance. Gardeners often think of themselves as pro-environment, yet some gardening approaches lead to unsound and unsustainable practices: overuse and conflict over water supplies, runoff of fertilizers or pesticides, unnecessary use of fossil fuels, and the spread of invasive plants and diseases. In this article I describe both our new ‘green’ Education Center and the ‘greenness’ of the garden in which it is being built.

The Conservation Garden

The mission of the North Carolina Botanical Garden is to inspire understanding, appreciation, and conservation of plants in gardens and natural areas and to advance a sustainable relationship between people and nature. From the very beginning (the first director, Dr. C. Ritchie Bell was appointed in 1961 and served until 1986, when I was named the Garden’s second director), the North Carolina Botanical Garden was devoted to the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of the plants of our state and region and about the relationship between people and plants everywhere. The wildflowers of our botanical diverse state were the first focus. Early in the 1990s, we began using the phrase ‘a conservation garden’ to represent our unique focus. This phrase is the subtitle on our entry sign, carved on the wood of a red cedar tree that fell on our lands during Hurricane Fran in 1996.

We define ‘Conservation Garden’ in two ways. The first way was simply by listing all of the conservation areas we work in. One of our first programs was ‘conservation through propagation’ for North Carolina wildflowers, which aimed to teach how plants can be grown from seed to reduce damage to wild populations that wild collecting can cause. But our programs soon encompassed many other conservation areas: protecting natural areas as nature’s own gardens (and thus allowing us to present the complete continuum from human to nature’s gardens), seed banking genetic diversity of endangered species and using these seeds in restoration, reducing the use of invasive species and biodiversity inventory and documentation. Our Chapel Hill Thesis, a challenge to botanical gardens on the invasive species issue was published in the BGCI Newsletter in 1999, and led to the St. Louis Codes of Conduct in 2001 (

Our second definition of Conservation Garden was inspired by Bill McDonough’s Hannover Principles. McDonough is a leader in sustainable design in the US. In his Hannover Principles he says that all human activities should be discussed and designed under five headings:

  • Earth: for use of sustainably produced, non-toxic, recycled, and re-used materials;
  • Air: for protection of air quality, indoors and out;
  • Fire: for use of renewable energy;
  • Water: for sustainable use of the lifeblood of both gardens and human societies;
  • Spirit: for the spirit of all living things - the staff, volunteers, visitors, plants, birds, pollinators, fungi…

Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit has become a sort of mantra at the Garden and seeks to position our planning and practices in all ways to achieve leadership in sustainability and environmental issues. For example, we have adopted a trash-free policy for events held at the Garden, whether sponsored by us or by others (these and other policies for sustainability and conservation are accessible on our web site:

The Education Center

In November, 2007, we began building a new facility. Our staff had doubled in size, and were crowded into the 5,000 sq. ft. (464 sq. m.) Totten Center (the Totten Center will remain in the new Garden as the horticultural center). Our one classroom was limiting our ability to teach and meet the needs of our community. That room was also the staff meeting room, the art gallery, and a gift shop.

One of the easiest choices we faced was to design the building to a high environmental standard. Our staff, board, and volunteers were united in this and so we designed the 31,000 sq ft (2,880 sq. m.) Education Center to achieve Platinum certification, the highest category of the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system.

Although our building is designed for sustainability, I also want to say that gardens have a special role to play - we can go beyond sustainability. Bill McDonough once remarked “Let's talk about sustainability in a new way…if you think about sustainability, is it really that exciting? What if I asked you, 'How is your relationship with your husband?' and you say 'Sustainable.' It's not that interesting really. I would almost feel as if I had to say, 'I'm sorry to hear that.' So, shouldn't we really be looking for something that is actually fecund - you know that's full of blood, and vigor and excitement?”

Bill McDonough also said that you should judge a building not just by its energy performance, but also by the number of birds you can hear singing from its edge. In my other role as a professor, I worked with a student team to explore how to evaluate our new building by the birds heard singing around it.

Gardens are perfect places to hear birds singing and to give back to the environment through restoration, repair, and teaching about how people can live best with the environment. Gardens are on the front lines of climate change, whether in the context of lowering contributions to atmospheric carbon dioxide to reduce change or adapting to it, and we create the habitat for people, as well as the connection between human and natural habitats. We can promote sustainability, but we can also create a place that meets McDonough’s challenge, to create that “something which is fecund, full of vigor and excitement”.

Peter White, Director and Professor
North Carolina Botanical Garden
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599 USA