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Slayton: The Aiken Garden

11/09/11 7:55AM By Tom Slayton
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(Host) The late US Senator George Aiken loved Vermont's native wildflowers and wrote a book on them. A new garden of native plants was recently dedicated to him at the Vermont State House in Montpelier, and commentator Tom Slayton was there.

(Slayton) Earlier this fall, a group of about 50 people gathered in the State House cafeteria to look at a new flower garden. The garden, located right in back of the State House, is made up entirely - well almost entirely - of native Vermont wildflowers and other plants.

The people came to dedicate the new garden to the late U.S. Sen. George D. Aiken, who in addition to serving two terms as governor of Vermont and six terms as U.S. Senator, was a horticulturist by profession and a wildflower lover by inclination and natural ability. His book, Pioneering with Wildflowers, went through five printings and became the authoritative guide to cultivating native plants.

Landscape architect Jean Vissering, who designed the garden, pointed out some of the native wildflowers that will grow and blossom there. There are various asters, Joe Pye weed, cardinal flower, turtlehead, swamp milkweed, white trillium, and others. She noted that the late Sen. Aiken was concerned - even in the 1930s - that native wildflowers were being pushed out of existence by exotic invasive plants. Vissering termed them "aggressive bullies." And so part of the purpose of the new garden, beyond simply celebrating and enjoying the Vermont plants, will be to educate people about the threat of invasives, like Bishop's Weed.

"We think we got most of the Bishop's Weed out," Vissering said, cheerfully. "But there's never NO Bishop's Weed."

The new garden isn't the first to occupy the hillside behind the State House. About 20 years ago, just after the cafeteria addition was built, a garden was established. But as sometimes happens with state projects, no money was budgeted for upkeep, and the little garden got overrun with weeds - those invasives.

The new native plants garden was the result of collaboration between the State House staff, the Master Gardeners, and the Nature Conservancy, which has a special program aimed at controlling invasive plants in Vermont. It will be called the George D. Aiken Native Plants Garden, and will be visible only through the expansive glass windows of the State House cafeteria. It's another good reason to visit Vermont's most important building.

Sen. Aiken's widow, Lola Aiken attended the dedication, as did several of his relatives and descendants. Gov. Peter Shumlin, like Aiken, a Putney native, noted that he may be remembered as "the other governor from Putney..."and remarked on Aiken's deep love of growing things. He said the garden would be "a tribute to George Aiken and his vision."

Likewise, the new garden affirms the traditional affection Vermonters have for our forests, natural landscapes, wildlife and native plants.

But there will be some non-native flowers left to bloom in the spring, according to David Schutz, the State House curator. He noted that some daffodils, tulips and crocuses - definitely not indigenous to Vermont - will be left to flower in the spring, near the end of the annual legislative session.

"It's a little burst of color that we frankly need to see, about that time of year," Schutz explained.
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