Tucked away just beyond the whir of traffic on Georgia Avenue in Wheaton, Brookside Gardens is an oasis of sorts. Winding paths lead visitors around lush displays and manicured landscapes featuring more than 20,000 species of plants that change with the seasons. With its ponds, brooks and gazebos, the 50-acre property was never a more popular refuge than during the pandemic.
“When traditional entertainment, businesses, shopping centers and restaurants all closed down, people turned towards the outdoors as a safe place to be,” says Stephanie Oberle, who has been director of Brookside since 2008 and has worked there for 24 years. A publicly funded display garden that charges no entry fee, Brookside kept its outdoor space in Wheaton Regional Park open from sunrise to sunset throughout COVID-19, attracting nearly 850,000 visitors in 2020—about 50% more than in a typical year.
When Brookside was founded in 1969, Montgomery County had about 500,000 residents; today the county is home to a diverse population of more than 1 million. Oberle says there’s been a concerted effort to design programs and events that appeal to a wider audience. Educational programs have expanded beyond traditional gardening slideshows to include yoga classes and lectures on food justice. Brookside recently introduced a community engagement fellowship program to connect with communities of color and hear what people want the gardens to offer. Brookside hosts seasonal activities such as Children’s Day (Sept. 18 and 19 this year), the Garden of Lights holiday display and the Summer Twilight Concert Series.
Oberle thinks of Brookside as a living museum, with the plants as its collection. “The gardens can be many things to many people,” she says. “They can be a place of personal reflection—we’ve seen that with COVID—but it can also be a place of community and gathering and family and making memories.”
Bethesda Magazine spent a day at Brookside in May.
Bethesda resident Yumiko Miura, pictured weeding in the Rain Garden outside of the conservatories, has volunteered at Brookside for nine years. The garden was planted at the base of a grassy slope to catch rainwater from the lawn above. The space includes perennials and shrubs that help hold and filter water, capturing pollutants and preventing flooding. Volunteers like Miura help a team of 14 horticulturists and seasonal workers. A variety of volunteer positions at Brookside include working at the information desk, helping with children’s programs, doing stream and grounds cleanup, and serving as a greenhouse/nursery aide. Each year, about 650 people volunteer on a regular basis; an additional 500 come for a day of service, often with their employers.
In the maintenance area to the west of the gardens, away from public view, a production greenhouse is where horticulturists submit designs to growers for upcoming displays. Staff there begin to grow the requested plants months in advance. This May, they were working on chrysanthemums for fall displays and orders for the Garden Railway Society show
starting in late November.
Brookside grows houseplants to sell in its gift shop. Succulents—including string of dolphins and echeveria “Perle von Nurnberg” (left)—have become increasingly popular in recent years.
Feng Zhu of Rockville takes photographs in the Rose Garden. Zhu comes every week to see the changing variety of flowers and sends pictures to her mother and brother in China via WeChat.
Jeanette Proudfoot, a horticulturist from Silver Spring, and Jack Cantilli, a gardener from College Park, move castor bean and other plants from the production greenhouse to put next to the entrance of Brookside’s Visitor Center. The display in the front bed area is bright and bold to catch the attention of arriving visitors. Proudfoot employs sustainable practices, such as reusing leaves from the lawn as mulch, and skips any synthetic liquid fertilizer that could seep into the groundwater. When the plants are dug up in the fall, Proudfoot will replace them with a cover crop, such as red clover. “When you remove plant material, you are removing nutrients—this puts it back into the soil,” she says. “It also adds organic matter and is an early pollinator for birds and insects.”
Charles Votaw of Garrett Park leads a tai chi class every week at the Japanese Tea House. He says Brookside is a beautiful setting for the Chinese martial art, which participants often practice outdoors. “We can watch the cranes and turtles as we are standing holding our postures and exercising,” says Votaw, pointing out that many tai chi postures have names inspired by animal movements, such as “White Crane Spreads Its Wings.”
The great blue heron is among about 80 types of birds that frequent Brookside, both as year-round residents and migratory species that come in the spring and fall.
Near the upper pond in the Gude Garden, Josh Demers, a lead gardener, cuts back viburnums. This part of Brookside reflects a Japanese style of gardening, with several evergreens that can be shaped into tall domes or spheres. Demers interned at Brookside in 2012 while he was studying landscape technology at Montgomery College. After graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in landscape management, he started working full time at Brookside in 2016.
The Reflection Terrace features a memorial to honor victims of the D.C.-area sniper attacks. Etched in a large flat-topped stone with a view of the Gude Garden pond is the message: “Linger here and reflect on those lost to violence. Hope for a more peaceful world. Seek a reverence for life among all people.” There are also standing granite blocks: one with a description of the 2002 attacks and the other with the names of those killed. The terrace was dedicated in 2004 under the leadership of then-County Executive Doug Duncan. During times of community trauma, like the sniper shootings or 9/11, county residents have sought out green spaces like Brookside as places of healing, Director Stephanie Oberle says.
Ila and Jim Beck of Rockville take their grandchildren, Felix, 3, and Cora, 5, to Brookside every few weeks. They follow the lines of the labyrinth, working it like a big puzzle to get to the center. “Kids being kids, they do it as fast as possible,” Jim says.
Mirola Calupe and her 13-year-old daughter, Kalea Zyck, who live in Silver Spring, visit Brookside often and are especially fond of the Fragrance and Rose Gardens.
In March, this walkway in the Rose Garden was transformed into an art display called “Facets of Hope,” with individual strands of vintage crystals hung to honor each life lost to COVID-19 in Montgomery County. The total number of strands reached 1,554 in early June. When Brookside Director Stephanie Oberle puts up new crystals, she often encounters visitors lingering in the area who tell her how grateful they are for the exhibit. “We are coming out of COVID, but it is still affecting people’s lives—and that grieving takes a long time. It doesn’t just go away,” Oberle says. “The beauty of this place sets people at ease. There are benches to sit and be quiet. That space encourages stillness, so people have time to reflect, process, think about their grief and the happy memories of their loved ones.”
First-time Brookside visitor Mike Powell drove his motorcycle from Dover, Delaware, for the day to visit the gardens and take photos. He’s inside the North House Conservatory that’s home to tropical and flowering plants, including banana, palm, eucalyptus and cacao trees, as well as snapdragons, rose-scented geraniums and tricolor sage. The South House is smaller and plays host to the popular live butterfly and caterpillar display, Wings of Fancy, which typically runs from spring through fall.
Lou Giacchino, who has been a weekly volunteer at Brookside for more than 20 years, checks on plants in the propagation area of a production greenhouse. A Silver Spring resident and former vice president of the Potomac Rose Society, he says he’s always learning something new as he works alongside the professional gardeners in the greenhouses and the Rose Garden.
Jessica Laigle, wellness and advancement programs specialist, became interested in the link between nature and healing while getting her master’s degree in social work and public health. She’s helped develop a “Strolls for Well-Being” program for Brookside that was piloted in the spring and will be introduced this fall. Four groups of up to 15 participants will be invited to walk in the gardens, journal and reflect. There are 12 individual walks, each with a theme such as awareness, trust or joy, and three group meetings, all completed over the course of eight weeks. Just as the walking paths promote physical health, the hope is that the program will encourage a mindful use of the garden for mental health.
Looking through the North House Conservatory window, Stephen Walter, a seasonal gardener assistant, is busy weeding outdoors. Because of the pandemic, Montgomery County cut its funding for the gardens by 6% for the fiscal year that ended on June 30. That meant Brookside had to reduce the budget for its seasonal gardening staff, so employees from the conservatories (which were closed to the public) helped out whenever there was a gap. Funding was restored in the 2022 budget.
Bert Zeitler has worked as a greenhouse grower and technician at Brookside for 27 years. The Silver Spring resident is standing inside the tropical section of a greenhouse, where some plants spend the winter with heat lights (controlled by a timer) and fans. Over about eight years, Zeitler has grown lantana plants into this rounded tree, which he’s shaped for the Fragrance Garden to provide nectar-rich flowers for bees and butterflies. This spring, robins made a nest and laid eggs in the tree—this part of the greenhouse has an open roof—so Zeitler kept the tree inside until the babies fledged.
Two-year-old Lucy Lyons comes to Brookside with her brother, Ezra, and her parents, Michael and Hannah Lyons, about once a week. The family lives in Kensington. “It’s nice to have a large, quiet place for the kids to spend time in,” says Michael, noting that the children especially like the fountains and chasing the geese. “They would live outside if they could.” Here, Lucy is pictured in the Children’s Garden, which changes its theme every five years. Its current focus is on “Exploring Maryland,” and kids can drive a wooden tractor, scout for black bears, or play in an old flat-bottomed aluminum boat while pretending to catch crabs.