Bringing the Prairie to the People
The Piedmont Prairie Garden at Durham's Rotary Plaza
By Annabel Renwick
Curator, Blomquist Garden of Native Plants
Indira Everett was unsure what to expect when she visited the reimagined Rotary Memorial Park in the heart of downtown Durham. What she beheld left her amazed and excited.
“Unbelievable!” she said of the newly designed plaza. “The awesome transformation and beautification of the park was incredible.”
This dramatic transformation was the brainchild of Ben Bergmann, horticulturist for the city of Durham. In June 2021 I met with Durham Rotary Club members and Indira, the 2021-22 club president, to hear Ben talk about his plans for the Rotary's plaza, which at the time needed reviving.
This landscape, in the shape of a rotary wheel, was constructed at the junction of North Mangum and East Chapel Hill streets to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Durham City Rotary Club in 1976. A circular stone wall represents the outer circle of the rotary wheel, and at its center lies a round pond from which six equidistant paths radiate to the outer wall, creating five amazing wildflower borders full of native plants.
Ben’s main intention was to create a garden that would be attractive to both people and pollinators, using native plants.
The following June, I visited the renovated “Piedmont Prairie Garden” at the Rotary plaza, and I agree with Indira’s statement. What an amazing transformation! Instead of a barren piece of ground with a broken fountain at its center, I found a stunning native plant garden brimming with pollinating insects feeding from a spectacular array of flowers. The fountain at the heart of the garden was now functioning and imparting a calming effect on all those who would stay to enjoy the garden, from wildlife to people.
Ben has designed and planted the garden utilizing a wide array of flowering shrubs and perennials that will bloom sequentially from February until December, offering sustenance in the form of nectar and pollen to the many pollinating insects that visit. The garden will also produce an abundance of seed, especially the coneflowers. These seeds will feed many birds, including goldfinches, which hang from the seed heads while they graze, adding to the beauty and enjoyment of this wonderful space.
Ben was recruited by the city of Durham in September 2020 and charged with “bringing horticulture to the next level” in downtown Durham. Not many months after Ben started in this role, we were introduced through a mutual friend, Shannon Currey, who works for Izel Native Plants. Shannon wanted Ben to see the “pocket prairies” that my team and I were creating in the Duke University Hospital parking lot. These pocket prairies were a spin-off from an earlier, larger Piedmont Prairie project in the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants.
The goal of the pocket prairie is to replace mowed grass with native plants that will create wildlife habitats and corridors for pollinating insects and birds. Ben wanted to discuss the choice of plants necessary to tolerate the harsh conditions that they would encounter when growing in low nutrient soil, with full sun and high summer temperatures (>90F), and only relying on sporadic rainfall. These cultural factors would be important for the garden he was about to design and install in the Rotary plaza. We were very excited to learn about Ben’s plan, and we supported it by donating native plants that we had propagated from seed.
I am writing this in spring 2023, and the garden is two years old. Last year, its first full year after planting, the garden was beautiful throughout the growing season. Gardens take a few years to fill in, and I am expecting an even more impressive display of blooms and pollinators later this year. Go and see these plantings and be inspired.
“This park is in the heart of downtown and is a welcoming place to Durham residents and visitors alike,” Indira says. “Rotary cares about serving to make the Durham community more vibrant. The Rotary park will be a great place to engage with the amazing citizens of Durham.”
Photos above, from top: A praying mantis on Helianthus annuus; the Rotary plaza in September 2020 (before the transformation), then during removal of vegetation by hand and tilling; the Rotary plaza in November 2020 with beds of crimson clover and winter rye; milkweed, sunflowers and Stokes aster in bloom in May 2022; lobelia, mountain mint, milkweed and Joe-Pye weed blooming in June 2022; a butterfly on sunflowers in August 2022. All photos above and below by Ben Bergmann.
The following excerpt is from a conversation I had with Ben to explore more about his gardening approach and the creation of the Rotary Memorial Park garden.
What is your goal for the landscape of downtown Durham? My overarching goal for downtown Durham landscapes is to increase their aesthetic appeal and sustainability while enhancing the green infrastructure service benefits that they provide.
Why did you first start the native plant/pollinator/wild life garden in the Rotary Club garden? The reason to start the garden at Rotary plaza anew was that it was desperately needed after years of neglect. Because that small space is surrounded by three major streets, I wanted whatever was done there to result in a destination garden, rather than something for traffic to just zip by. I wanted to create a Piedmont Prairie Garden in particular for two reasons: 1) to re-imagine a high-profile, high-value downtown Durham greenspace in a completely new way; 2) to create a showcase in Durham for a horticultural approach that starts with sustainability and emphasizes the social and environmental benefits of creatively using native plants.
What did you find at the garden when you arrived? The garden was predominantly bare patches or weeds with occasional remnant plants from past attempts at a garden.
What was your aim in the design of the planting? My overarching aim was to use native, perennial plants to create a pollinator-friendly ecosystem that looks like an intentional garden while also having an informal feel to it. I have landed on the name “Piedmont Prairie Garden” for this design to reflect that aim and the fact that a majority of the plants are indeed endemic to the N.C. Piedmont. As a garden, rather than a true pocket prairie with more mixed and randomly placed plants, I wanted to meet some criteria of any well-planned garden – multi-season interest, near continuous bloom, and complementing and contrasting textures, colors, shapes and sizes.
Where did you source your plants? Nearly half of the plants incorporated into the garden were provided by you (Annabel Renwick) and Maegan Luckett of the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants. Your team grew plugs of native plants from local ecotype seed that originally came from local populations here in the N.C. Piedmont. Most of the rest came from N.C. plant nurseries that specialize in growing our native plants: Hoffman Nursery, Mellow Marsh Farm, Plantworks Nursery, and Wetland Plants Inc.
Do you have a plant list you are happy to share? Yes. (See list below.)
As Indira said, “Unbelievable.” What an amazing garden and attribute for the city of Durham.
From left: a bumblebee on Asclepias incarnata, a honeybee on Stokesia laevis, a butterfly on Pycnanthemum incanum.
From left: a honeybee on Asclepias tuberosa, a honeybee on Oenothera fruticosa, a moth on Pycnanthemum incanum.
From left: a wasp on Helianthus angustifolius, a leaf-footed bug on Solidago bicolor, a monarch butterfly on Asclepias incarnata.
A grasshopper on Helianthus annuus.
From left: a honeybee on Solidago speciosa, a bumblebee on Solidago bicolor.
From left: a butterfly on Stokesia laevis, a butterfly on Hibiscus incarnata.
From left: a honeybee hovering over Pycnanthemum incanum, a bumblebee in flight to Penstemon digitalis, a butterfly on Stokesia laevis.
Ampelaster carolinianus (climbing aster)
Amsonia hubrichtii (Hubricht's blue star)
Aquilegia canadensis (red columbine)
Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed)
Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed)
Baptisia australis (false indigo)
Clethra alnifolia (summersweet)
Conoclinium coelestinum (blue mistflower)
Coreopsis gladiata (sickle tickseed)
Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower)
Eragrostis elliottii (Elliott’s love grass)
Eutrochium fistulosum (hollow Joe-Pyeweed)
Eutrochium maculatum (spotted Joe-Pyeweed)
Fothergilla x intermedia (witch alder)
Helianthus angustifolius (swamp sunflower)
Hibiscus coccineus (scarlet mallow)
Ilex verticillata (winterberry)
Iris versicolor (northern blue flag iris)
Itea virginica (Virginian sweetspire)
Kosteletzkya pentacarpos (seashore mallow)
Liatris spicata (blazing star)
Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower)
Oenothera fruticosa (narrow-leaf evening primrose)
Panicum virgatum (switchgrass)
Penstemon digitalis (foxglove beardtongue)
Penstemon laevigatus (eastern smooth beardtongue)
Phlox paniculata (garden phlox)
Phlox subulata (creeping phlox)
Pycnanthemum incanum (hoary mountain mint)
Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan)
Rudbeckia triloba (brown-eyed Susan)
Solidago bicolor (white goldenrod)
Solidago speciosa (showy goldenrod)
Stokesia laevis (stokes' aster)
Yucca filamentosa (Adam's needle)