“A botanical garden is ultimately a zoo for plants,” said Jamie Burghardt, horticulture coordinator. “It’s about connecting people with plants and nature.”
Originally a farm with a stand of Japanese bamboo planted in the late 1800s, the site — about 10 miles from downtown Savannah on U.S. 17 — in 1919 became a U.S. Department of Agriculture plant introduction station where bamboo and other plants were tested for uses ranging from medicine to paper. Cost-cutting measures closed that operation in 1979. The site was handed over to the University of Georgia in 1983. Since then it supported agricultural and horticultural research, education and outreach.
But more funding cuts and the threat of closure in the middle of the last decade forced the 51-acre site to refocus its mission again.
“We said we need to move forward with something broader in appeal than just bamboo,” said Alan Beals, president of the Friends of Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens.
A botanical garden was a perfect fit.
“Our research has found there’s no major botanical garden along I-95 corridor from Richmond, Va., all the way to Miami, Fla.,” Burghardt said.
So the “Bamboo Farm and Coastal Gardens” officially became the “Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm” on Sept. 18, 2012. Those partial to bamboo needn’t worry. There’s still a huge collection of bamboo artifacts ranging from slippers to pigeon whistles accumulated by the USDA and retrieved from storage at the Smithsonian.
And there’s the living legacy of the historic bamboo groves where more than 70 species and cultivars still thrive.
The University of Georgia College of Landscape Design created a master plan for the site, and its transformation is well underway.
This past spring Burghardt finished planting a Mediterranean garden near the original entrance. Its gravel paths lead through kumquats, rosemary, oleander and spurge.
“A Mediterranean garden is about structure and architecture and bold colors because you don’t want those bold colors fading in the sunlight,” he said.
A lush water garden planted about a year ago bursts with exotic and native species such as cattail, papyrus and giant powdery alligator flag. An accessible garden of raised beds built last year facilitates easier gardening for people with various physical abilities. The camellia garden, begun in 2002, features the most diverse collection of these Southern beauties east of the Mississippi.
The pick-your-own fields of strawberries and blueberries remain. Along with plant sales, they’re important sources of operations funding for the botanical garden. It’s supported mainly through the University of Georgia but also through some personnel and in-kind services from the county, grants and fundraising by the Friends of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens.
The Friends group has raised about $2.5 million, some of which has already been put to use in features such as the water garden and a nearby shade garden.
Beals expects the community to take even greater notice over the next year as a four-acre bamboo maze complex and a visitors and education center take shape.
The maze was inspired by corn mazes that pop up around the country each fall. But in a nod to the site’s history, its walls will be living bamboo, all with enough foliage to create three challenging mazes — one for small kids, one for older children and an advanced portion suitable for corporate team-building events.
“You want a dense thicket so people can’t cheat,” Burghardt said.
A centrally located, 45-foot observation tower has already attracted attention to the maze, which has been laid out but not yet planted and will take several years to grow to its full height.
“We have people calling on the phone saying ‘I was driving by, what’s that big tower thing?’” said events planner Liz Lubrani. “The fire chief across the street called one day and asked ‘What’s that tower thing?’”
Few bamboo mazes exist, said Beals, who’s only been able to locate two others — one in France and one in Denmark.
“They’re both very small,” he said. “Ours will be the largest one.”