Director of Horticulture at Richmond’s Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is a post tailor-made for Grace Chapman Elton.
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Photos by Roger Foley
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In 2011, when Richmond's Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden opened its search for a director of horticulture, the applications flew in. And as with any search, especially one seeking to fill such a pivotal slot at the popular 83-acre garden, the goal was what Executive Director Shane Tippett calls the slam-dunk candidate—the ideal person who could hit the ground running with only the gentlest of learning curves.
On first glance, it’s surprising that the post went to then 29-year-old Grace Chapman Elton who, though she had significant experience at public gardens abroad and at home, had just one job on her résumé—horticulture supervisor and adjunct professor at the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University in Ambler, Pennsylvania. The competition was stiff and included the former director of horticulture at a large botanical garden and the general superintendent of grounds for a major public university, “But it has been my habit to include somebody really young in the interview process,” explains Tippett, “and it became clear that Grace was the one for this job.”
Winning the post made Elton one of the youngest directors of horticulture at a major U.S. public garden. In her five years at the helm of the garden that features the only classical domed conservatory in the Mid-Atlantic and employs a staff of 72 and more than 600 volunteers to manage its 50 acres of plantings and 15 themed gardens, she has earned plaudits and achieved more than many could have expected of someone even twice her age; among her achievements are a new apiary with demonstration beehives, partnerships to grow hops for a local brewery and vegetables for an area food bank, and the planting of Lewis Ginter’s first native plant garden, set to unveil this fall.
Elton, a Florida native, first got the plant bug as a child in Everglades National Park where her parents worked, her mother as a technician in the hydrology department and her father as a biological sciences technician in the marine biology department. Then, while a student of horticulture at the University of Florida, she spent a semester in London at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, the world champion of botanic gardens. “Because I was from Florida, at Kew I worked on tropical plants, in the Princess of Wales Conservatory, which replicates 10 different tropical zones,” explains Elton. After graduation, and a nine-month internship at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, she returned to England in 2005 to represent the U.S. for a year as the recipient of the prestigious Martin McLaren Horticulture Scholarship in an exchange between the Garden Club of America and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).
“I had a real interest in education in public gardens, so on the scholarship I worked at five gardens in the U.K. and focused on educational programs,” says Elton. She began at Kew then traveled southwest to Devon and RHS Garden Rosemoor, which she describes as “a tiny garden” that attracted kids from all over the country, igniting in her an interest in appealing to youngsters with plants. From there she went to the Eden Project, in Cornwall. “It draws kids like a Disney spot,” she laughs, then “they kind of sneak in education.” Elton next ventured to Scotland for a stint at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. And finally, back in London, she spent time at the more than 300-year-old Chelsea Physic Garden. There, she worked with a group of landscape architects and interns from the U.K. and Sweden to design an exhibit for the famous Chelsea Flower Show, for which she received an award as lead horticulturist.
Following her fellowship, Elton earned her master’s in public horticulture administration, a program Longwood Gardens funds through the University of Delaware. “It was much like a nonprofit management degree,” she explains. She then moved on to the job that Lewis Ginter’s Tippett saw on her résumé, managing the gardens at the satellite campus of Temple University. There, she worked with students and supported professors in their classes, and as part of a team, won awards at the Philadelphia Flower Show in 2009, 2010 and 2011. In 2009 alone, their entry, “Green Renaissance,” garnered the American Horticultural Society Award and four other major honors.
It was in 2011, while she was at Temple, that Elton saw Lewis Ginter’s advertisement for a horticulture director. “When I saw the posting I started looking into the garden more,” she says, “and did a secret shopper visit down here, to see if I felt like it was a garden that really connected.”
And it did. In addition to its famous conservatory and 15 themed gardens, including the Rose Garden, Cherry Tree Walk and Asian Valley as well as a much-loved children’s garden, Lewis Ginter comprises an education center that features a well-appointed auditorium and meeting rooms, a library, an herbarium and laboratory space, and hosts a full slate of classes for the public.
“I remember thinking, even the parking lots are beautiful,” says Elton. This secret shopper trip, which she let out of the bag in the interview, impressed the search committee.
What Elton saw at Lewis Ginter was opportunity. “When I first visited,” she recalls, “I found that the Conservatory didn’t have much direction with its horticulture collections. Every room had a few specimen plants, the filler plants were very common, and the same plant material was repeated in every room.” The change in filler plants was easily remedied, Elton swapping the common Boston ferns with a rare tropical fern. “I also gave each room an identity, not repeating plants in each room,” she explains. She worked with the conservatory horticulturist to almost double the number of palms in the Dome House, and plants in one wing were replaced with a succulent display.
Elton also brought care of the garden’s 1,200-plant orchid collection from the private nursery, where they had been nurtured since 2003, back to Ginter. “I determined that we would be able to better curate the collection and make decisions on how to grow the collection if we cared for it here,” she says. “So we moved them back to our greenhouses, hired a greenhouse horticulturist, and started assessing our orchid collection goals, testing for viruses and improving the accuracy of the nomenclature. We are now displaying three times the number of blooming orchids in the Conservatory.”
Outside, she began a revamping of the fish pool, adding irises and huge-padded waterlilies and replacing an expanse of inert lawn with a prairie-grass meadow. Behind is a new apiary, with five beehives, including an observation hive that puts the bees’ industry on display for visitors; a garden of hops created in partnership with Ashland’s Center of the Universe Brewery; and a vegetable garden that supplied more than 7,000 pounds of fresh produce in 2015 alone to Richmond’s FeedMore, whose programs include Meals on Wheels and the Virginia Food Bank. Elton’s panoramic background led to an invitation last year to join the board of the prestigious American Public Gardens Association, the top organization for U.S. professionals in public horticulture.
A pet project for Elton is the Morton Native Plant Garden, begun last spring, the final 15 percent or so to be completed this fall. A 5,300-square-foot section of turf behind the education building has been transformed into a focal point for events. While Lewis Ginter has Virginia natives throughout its 80 acres, the Morton site is “the first area that will showcase Virginia native plants listed in the Flora of Virginia all in one focused location,” explains Elton, although a few horticultural varieties of natives are included. The garden comprises trees, shrubs and perennials, including winterberry holly, elderberry, coral honeysuckle (not the invasive Japanese species), viburnum and Virginia creeper.
“We want Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden to be a place where visitors can learn and gain inspiration from our plantings and enjoy their aesthetics,” says Elton. “Planting a garden of plants native to Virginia will hopefully teach visitors that native plants can fit any design need.
“A botanical garden—it’s all about the place,” says Elton. “You have to connect with the place, and the plants.” She does. And so do the 350,000 people who visit Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden each year. Everyone else is missing out. LewisGinter.org
This article originally appeared in our Oct. 2016 issue. Update: Elton moved to Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Massachusetts in early 2017.