As he walks through grass glistening from an early morning watering, Johns Hopkins physicist Bruce Barnett explains that the prime time for Guilford’s historic Sherwood Gardens is the last week in April, when the tulips are at their peak, and the first week of September.
Yes, September. Since 1989, when Barnett and his late wife, Dottie, asked the Guilford Association if they could plant one circular bed in the northeast corner with annuals, the 7.5-acre Sherwood Gardens have gradually become a summer showplace.
That first summer, the Barnetts planted marigold seeds, which were plowed under by mowers multiple times. “After they were mowed under three times, we planted live plants, which caught everyone’s attention,” he says. Gradually more residents joined the effort.
Now each of the 28 beds in Sherwood Gardens is filled with annuals from Memorial Day to frost through an adopt-a-plot program. This annual undertaking is fueled by the volunteer efforts of many individuals and families, an irrigation system with 700 heads, the financial and physical support of the Guilford community and Barnett’s continued leadership. Besides annuals, some showy canna lilies punctuate the gardens, as well as crape myrtle trees and continuous-blooming, pest-free ‘Knock out’ roses.
“In the summer, Sherwood Gardens used to be a burned-out desert,” says Barnett. “The goal is to make it look good.” There is no overall design or color scheme. The only dictum is: “Plant what you want, and take care of it.” Marigolds, impatiens and cleome seem to be the most popular choices, and during the first week in September they’re at their prime.
Each May, Barnett and his wife, Amy, herself a fine gardener, host a potluck to encourage others to join the adopt-a-plot effort. Planting begins on Memorial Day weekend, after the annual tulip dig. “The adopting ‘parents’ and some students hired for the weekend put in nearly 500 person-hours of work during those three days,” says Barnett. Several new “parents” sign up every year. “But we need more young people. The summer gardens don’t just happen automatically.”
When Barnett has asked landscaping companies what it would cost to have them do the job, the answer ranges from $70,000 to $100,000 annually. Right now the summer gardens operate on a $16,000 annual budget. Although open to the public and functioning like a public park, Sherwood Gardens is entirely supported financially by the Guilford Association and community members. The city used to contribute $25,000 a year, but in recent years has contributed nothing.
Barnett, who walks through the gardens twice a day going to and from work, often spends a half-hour each way weeding the beds. For him, the work is worth it when he sees people enjoying the garden. Watching a mother and two children playing in the grass one summer morning, he says, “You wouldn’t have seen that 25 years ago.”