Arboretum's new director lists priorities: improved funding, new gardens, invasive plants

ctruman@herald-leader.comFebruary 17, 2014 


    The Arboretum 'Glories of the Garden' art exhibit

    Where: Dorotha Smith Oatts Visitor Center

    Where: Feb. 17-March 9, Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.

    More information: (859) 257-6955 or

Early in 2013, Molly Davis attended a lecture at the University of Kentucky/Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Arboretum's visitors center.

Director Marcia Farris told Davis of her plans to retire in late 2013 and suggested Davis consider applying for the job.

A year later, Davis is at work at the Arboretum, the Kentucky State Botanical Garden, as its new director. She started Jan. 1 and is the third director in the arboretum's 23-year history.

Dressed for work on an icy winter's day as the new director of the Arboretum, Davis is business on top, ice-wrangling on the bottom wearing a gray turtleneck, a violet jacket and jeans with walking boots and striped socks.

In the middle of February the garden's 100 acres of Kentucky-friendly plants are under the snow that has dogged Lexington for weeks. Inside the visitors center, traffic is thick with incoming art exhibits and those attending lectures on planning your vegetable garden and conserving Monarch butterflies.

Davis, 52, is now in what she considers her dream setting: talking with people about plants all day.

Growing up in Lexington on Transylvania Park and out Newtown Pike, Davis found her calling for landscape architecture while at the University of Kentucky. She worked as a landscaper in England for three years — which included work on plants at what is now Disneyland Paris — before returning to the states, where she worked for the New York-based Parsons Brinkerhoff engineering company's Lexington location. Her work with them included managing projects such as a parking structure in Beckley, West Va., that included a big public space.

She also worked on assignments such as the design and development of the Mississippi Embayment project, which converted a small part of the Arboretum near Glendover Road into a detention area that slowed runoff while serving as part of the Arboretum's display of regional flora.

Davis also advised on aspects of the Kentucky Children's Garden, the site of many children's programs run by the Arboretum, which also holds numerous events for adults and offers a demonstration vegetable garden.

A project outside of the Arboretum on which Davis was the landscape architect, the Clark County Lower Howard's Creek corridor management plan, won a 2007 analysis and planning award from the American Society of Landscape Architects, which described it as "incredibly moving in preserving cultural legacy and demonstrating the majesty of things from the past."

Davis is delighted that the Arboretum is so popular among Lexingtonians, but stressed that the garden is "a place for plants" rather than a park — which is why the cross-country skiers who have been frequenting the arboretum may want to watch what they stab with their poles.

"It's for people to learn about the plants ... and become educated about what they see," Davis said of the Arboretum.

The Arboretum's two-mile Walk Across Kentucky — an area in which plants and trees mimic Kentucky's geographic regions, from the Bluegrass to the Eastern Mountain and Coal Fields to the Pennyrile — gives visitors "the plant material ... held forever in a living library."

Davis has long enjoyed the Arboretum, as a resident of nearby neighborhoods around Nicholasville and Tates Creek roads.

When she moved nearby in 1991, Davis began to walk her dog — "a very large unruly dog that needed some socializing and exercise" — at the Arboretum, watching the garden develop.

The Arboretum sits on Alumni Drive, a demarcation line of sorts between University of Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium and its seemingly endless surface parking lots and the surrounding residential suburbs.

Davis said that her priorities include:

■ Continue to fight the good fight against invasive plants. Davis wants to begin a campaign to work with Arboretum neighbors to stymie the invasion of invasive plants, among them bush honeysuckle and winter creeper "that is almost impossible to eliminate."

■ Expansion of the visitors' center. The current center, although welcoming, lacks the facilities that the arboretum needs to stage all its works, from classes to planting and storage, Davis said.

The center also needs more group space, a library and gift shop, she said. A gift table is now used to distribute souvenirs.

Volunteers and employees "don't have a space where they can take off their salty, muddy boots and do their work," Davis said. As now designed, an expansion would cost $1.3 million and add about 2,150 square feet.

Funding for such activities is a priority for Davis. While UK handles the basic operation of the arboretum and the Urban County government kicks in a stipend of $50,000 year, additional activities often depend on the generosity of donors. The city also provided money for an upcoming bathroom installation at the children's garden.

■ Create an enhanced prairie area. Davis likes prairie plants for their diversity and ability to capture lots of water. Davis said she wants the prairie area, near the Shawnee Hills part of the Walk Across Kentucky, to increase opportunities for bird and butterfly habitat.

■ Find funding for the north-south woodland path that is being designed at the back of the arboretum. It would be accessible to both walkers and bicycle riders, Davis said, and would give north-south commuters an option without having them on the arboretum's main walkways, which are not wide enough for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

Davis said she is grateful to other "plant people" who have given her their encyclopedic knowledge of garden material, among them Jamie Dockery, now with the county extension service.

"Those plant people are fascinating because of what they have in their brains," she said.

Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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