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A Farm’s Friends

By Cheryl Dorschner Article published October 27, 2004

Digging Friends
Hardy "Friends": At an Oct. 16 workshop, volunteers planted 800 bulbs at the UVM Horticulture Farm in South Burlington. Among them, from left, Ruth Painter of Williston, Leonard Perry, Ann Milovsoroff of Shelburne and Stephanie Miner of South Burlington. (Photo: Cheryl Dorschner)

Burlington’s wrap-around suburb of South Burlington is well known for wide roadways rimmed with malls, car dealerships and brand-name stores where much of the county’s retail business takes place. So it is surprising that in the midst of this business zone hides a 97-acre oasis of wild lands, arboretum-class horticultural specimens and an organic farm — the UVM Horticultural Research Center.

Purchased in the 1950s by UVM for agricultural and horticultural research and classes, the site still preserves that fifties feeling. Straight, gravel roads are flanked by rows of vegetable crops, lines of mature crabapple trees stretching into the distances and other plantings in blocks or rows, research-style. A one-story building, sided in “meetinghouse blue” metal, houses a workshop, classroom and office. The interior décor is faux wood veneer punctuated by grey metal office furniture and stacking chairs. A thermos of coffee and box of donuts or cookies alongside a sign-in sheet substitutes for a human welcome. The place bespeaks a comfortable, unpretentious feeling that causes insiders and close friends to call it affectionately “The Hort Farm.”

A decade of support
The Hort Farm has many close friends, and since April 1994 they’ve been friends with a capital “F.”

Like any good friends, these gardeners, professional horticulturists and volunteers came to the rescue when the Hort. Farm’s fate was uncertain during talks of a potential zoning changes in 1994. Their interest began when members of a statewide gardening organization, the Hardy Plant Club, toured the facility with UVM Plant and Soil Science Professor Emeriti Norman Pellett. They saw a collection of 120 different kinds of crabapples, 90-plus lilacs, 60 varieties of junipers, significant hardy rhododendrons, viburnums, conifers and other trees, shrubs, apples and perennials — a mature, valuable collection with national-class potential and great need of maintenance. Within months, volunteers worked with UVM and applied their expertise, loppers and pruners to modestly spruce up the plants

Ten years later they haven’t stopped caring for and identifying those specimens.

“I think we’re right on track — our goal was to take care of the major woody collection and it has never looked better. I think public awareness of the facility has increased, and we’ve seen an important increase of activity with the students with the Common Ground Farm and the UVM Horticulture Club as well as grade-school tour groups,” says David Heleba, a founder and former board member.

This nonprofit corporation chartered “to help promote, protect and improve the collection at the University of Vermont Horticultural Research Center” has:

  • Created a dues-paying membership of more than 200 and a database of over 1,500 interested people, held events, workshops, seed swaps, plant sales, tours and auctions every year that have netted income which is poured back into the maintaining and building the collection.
  • Began an extensive on-computer map of the complete collection and a forest inventory.
  • Identified and labeled woody plants, a task slated to be finished in the next 18 months.
  • Built an information kiosk that acts as a gathering spot for information and activities.
  • Worked with neighbors in an ongoing effort to improve water quality and restore the banks of Bartlett Brook running through the property.
  • Supported UVM students running the on-site Common Ground Farm with grants, volunteer work and even a truck.
  • Tapped the expertise of UVM and Extension professors and staff such as Pellett, Michael Vayda, David Barrington, Mark Starrett, Leonard Perry, Buddy Tignor, Margaret Skinner, Lorraine Berkett, Elena Garcia, Ann Hazelrigg, Nancy Hulett, David Heleba and others.
  • Published “A History of the Hort Farm” and “Native Shrubs and Vines for Vermont” by Norman Pellett and an annual calendar – in its fourth year – highlighting friends and regional gardening events.
  • Relocated and labeled the Marchen Skinner Fern Collection and other species under the direction of Barrington.
  • Built a Cary Award garden featuring plants that have won the Cary program’s distinction due to their proven performance in New England gardens and a perennial and bulb display garden.
The group also joins hands with the UVM Extension Master Gardener program to mutual benefit.

“We actively support the Horticultural Research Center by providing volunteer members to help maintain its valuable plant collections,” explains Nancy Hulett, coordinator of the home horticulture programs. “In return, the Master Gardeners gain practical horticulture experience that they share with the gardening public in educational projects. It is a wonderful benefit to both organizations.” Hulett calculates that Master Gardeners logged in 660 hours at the UVM farm so far in 2004 alone, which she sets at a value of $9,900.

Tending the soil
While some founders had visions that the horticulture farm could be Vermont’s version of the Montreal Botanic Garden or Arnold Arboretum, the board took its cues from the university.

“There were two things we’ve had to reconcile,” says current president and long-time member Judy Goodyear, “the things we might do and the things the university controls. We work within the university’s parameters. We’re just here to appreciate the Hort Farm and to help.”

The organization's tenth anniversary marks a maturing rite of passage for both the friends and the university. Both groups are taking stock and looking ahead. The friends have crafted a survey to be taken by neighbors, UVM affiliates, friends, Vermont horticultural businesses and professionals and will mull over the results in a Jan. 22 retreat.

“We want to hear their evaluation of the last decade and to find out what the Friends of the Hort Farm can do for UVM in the coming years,” says Goodyear.

Meanwhile, UVM is organizing a faculty committee to meet in early November to look at the Hort Farm facility, finances, outlay, resources and the role of the Friends for the future, according to new Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Michael Vayda. “We want to plan with them on how we can have public awareness and access and preserve the goal of research and teaching for the university,” he says.

With this kind of careful tending, it’s clear that the Friends of the Hort Farm has been identified and labeled “a hardy perennial.”


Annual individual membership in the Friends of the Hort Farm begins at $25; P.O. Box 64788; Burlington, VT 05406-4799; 864-3073. David.Heleba@uvm.edu. The facility is open Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-4 p.m. as research allows and for special events. Members receive a bimonthly newsletter, discounted admission to events and preferred shopping at plant sales.