A Not So Secret Garden

Tucked away at the Wheeler Homestead on Dorset Street, the Vermont Garden Park features colorful vignettes and pathways cultivated by Master Gardeners and local volunteers. More photos page 16 in the print edition.

With summer finally in full bloom, if you’re looking for a place to unwind and fully embrace the season of sun, sandals, and picnics, you don’t have to travel very far. Vermont Garden Park on Dorset Street is a summer dream come true. It began in 2000, when The Burlington Garden Club and Horticulturist Charlie Nardozzi turned this once barren field into a 100-acre glorious green landscape. Together, they worked the soil to create the Cottage Garden and Butterfly Garden, just two of the gardens in the park. The park, a section of the Wheeler Nature Park, has since flourished into what South Burlington resident Paul Steinman calls “not just a garden but a destination.”

Steinman, a self-described “fanatic” when it comes to gardening, arrived at his “destination” ten years ago. While out for a winter walk he came across the park along his route. That’s when he learned the Burlington Garden Club was looking for volunteers. Recently retired, Steinman planted the seeds of his new calling and joined the volunteer effort. That spring he met Jan Desarno, Master Gardener and president of the Burlington Garden Club. “I started out knowing nothing,” he said as we sat on a wooden bench he installed by the Pollinator Garden. “I’ve learned a lot working with Master Gardeners,” he continued. “Now that I’m involved, I love it.” His passion is perennial: “If I see something half dying at home, I can’t sleep at night. Before I didn’t give a darn.”

Along with Desarno’s Garden Club crew, other regular volunteers who help care for the park are grateful for Mr. Steinman’s hard work. “We adore him,” volunteer Janette Hasenecz shared in a recent email to The Other Paper. It’s no wonder: he spends each Wednesday at the park staking plants, repairing fences and arbors, pruning and planting shrubs, and helping with cleaning up during the spring and fall. Steinman, who dedicates as many as 150 hours of his time to the park each season, was the brainchild behind the Dino Land sand pit, Frontier Land, and Gnome Village. In what he refers to as “destination theme parks,” these are dedicated play areas for children to create sand sculptures, to fancy themselves as pioneers in the American Old West, or to journey into magical encounters with miniature gnomes.

Steinman’s most recent project has been to replace the paper signs throughout the park with sturdier ones designed by Kershner Signs in South Burlington. He began erecting the signs last year, one for Dino Land, and each of the other play areas, and another for the Tea Garden, where children gather around a rustic table for afternoon tea parties. What better place can you think of to let your children run free with their imaginations? And, as Steinman noted, “Mothers feel comfortable here. It’s a safe place for kids.”

While there are four to five other regular volunteers who help each week with raking, weeding, and planting, The Garden Club is always looking for more volunteers. “It takes a lot more work than people think,” Steinman said. It truly does take a team: Desarno grows starter plants in her own greenhouse, and takes the plants from the park home each winter to care for them. In 2015, made possible by a generous grant from The New England Grassroots Environment Fund, ten raised beds were installed. These beds were planted with vegetables and are now maintained by the Growing Young Gardeners Club, a program of the Burlington Garden Club. Every Thursday, about 10 children, ages 4 to 10, their parents, and program leader Ms. Desarno, care for these gardens. It was volunteer Bonnie Machia who conceived the idea to plant with children. The kids should be proud of themselves: their hands-on efforts yielded 1160 pounds of vegetables last year, a bounty of goodness donated to the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf. This year the vegetables will be donated to the Community Food Shares Program for needy families organized by Common Roots, a South Burlington non-profit organization dedicated to farm-to-school education and to providing healthy food to our at-risk community.

According to Steinman, South Burlington Recreation and Parks department mows the lawn and provides some of the compost for the raised beds. Along with other local volunteers, UVM Extension Master Gardeners plant and maintain many of the gardens in the park. The Garden Club is responsible for the Butterfly Garden, and as a member of the Federated Garden Clubs of Vermont, the Grandma and Grandpa’s Garden. In this daisy-dotted pathway, children are invited join their grandparents in taking slow, steady steps – to stop and smell the flowers flourishing at their feet.

I urge you take a break from the chaos of everyday life and step into the Vermont Garden Park, where you can choose to enjoy lunch in the picnic shelter, to walk through the grape arbor tunnel, or to sit in the shade of the wheelchair accessible tree house.

To be in the Vermont Garden Park is to be well held by sweeping beauty. The herbal breeze, the moist soil in your palm, and the tickle of a butterfly on your shoulder remind us, as Steinman said, “Everything here has a purpose.”

To learn more about the Vermont Garden Park, or to inquire about volunteering opportunities, visit the park at 1100 Dorset Street.

SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Correspondent

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