January 2020

by Tony Gurnoe, Director of Horticulture

Seven years ago when I started working at San Diego Botanic Garden (SDBG), nobody quite knew what would become of the big dirt lot at the north end of our recently opened Hamilton Children’s Garden, but it was evidently destined for something important.

This Garden has reached many significant milestones in the years since, but the completion of the Dickinson Family Education Conservatory outshines them all. This state-of-the-art facility is our most significant investment ever, both in terms of creating a unique educational public space and in developing our plant collection. Computer programmed environmental controls, rare plants from around the world suspended overhead, a giant living wall, two classrooms and a substantial infusion of structural engineering make this a complex yet flexible space that will dramatically expand the Garden’s ability to meet our important mission.

Hopefully by introducing you to some of the features and inhabitants of this new building and landscape you’ll have a better appreciation for how significantly this space bolsters the Garden’s ability to make a positive impact, both for plants and in our community.

Traveling beyond our Hamilton Children’s Garden, the Dickinson Family Education Conservatory quickly draws the eye. This large glass structure was designed to be the dominant feature in the landscape, but we have put in great effort to ensure botanical interest and value in the adjacent gardens. Amidst the four bioretention and filtration basins are rare and endangered palms, cycads, FicusMagnolia and other plants which have been delicately cared for by our Garden staff and volunteers for years in anticipation of this expansion.

Wollemia nobilis is one example – a critically endangered Australian conifer that was only known from fossil records until a remnant population was discovered in 1994. Other plants came to us from generous colleagues, including the Magnolia lanuginosa, a species from northeastern India that was presumed to be extinct and hadn’t been documented for more than a century before being recently rediscovered by botanists. Tucked in among the trees you will also find colorful bromeliads, aroids of various shapes and sizes, and ornate flowers from orchids, Begonia and Plumeria. This landscape takes advantage of Encinitas’ wonderful growing climate to dissolve the perceived boundaries between inside and out.

The building itself is similarly designed to reduce the sense of being inside a stuffy conservatory. Roll up and accordion glass doors around the perimeter open to provide a seamless indoor and outdoor experience. Strategic planter beds allow us to further disguise large structural elements while showcasing spectacular tropical climbing plant specimens.

Upon entering the conservatory, you will notice that most of the plants are not in the ground. Most of these specimens are not even planted in any kind of soil. To create a space that is comfortable and available at ground level for the Garden’s human visitors while simultaneously being hospitable to and full of abundant tropical plants, we had to enlist a special group known as epiphytes. Epiphytic plants naturally grow in the canopy of trees and account for many of the threatened and valuable plants in the tropics. Their unusual floral lifestyle enabled us to develop large chandeliers fabricated from wood and stainless steel, which mimic the plants’ natural habitat despite appearing otherworldly. Advanced hoist mechanics and robust construction of the building allow us to bring these elaborate floating planters down to ground level to provide an up close experience between our visitors and the plants or raise them toward the ceiling to maximize utility for functions like classes, meetings, or weddings. Six floating plant islands and a giant living wall compliment the plant chandeliers while adding depth to the plant collection and three-dimensional interest of the overall exhibit.

Rather than focus on individual plant specimens inside, considering there are dozens worthy of articles entirely to themselves, let’s finish this tour of the overall facility and intent for this amazing new space. The Dickinson Family Education Conservatory features two classrooms of different styles. The first classroom exists within the main plant hall of the Conservatory. This space can be closed and independently climate controlled or cascading glass doors can open to create a learning environment immersed in the planted space. Adjacent to the main hall is a second classroom of a very different nature, which not only features a teaching and catering kitchen, but also opens to an amphitheater on the west side of the Conservatory.

After years of hard work, it is extremely satisfying and pride-evoking for us to unveil the Dickinson Family Education Conservatory to the public. Although, in a different sense, our work in this space is just beginning. The uniqueness of this facility, both in its purpose and design means there is no prescribed road map to the best strategy for operating it. Instead our success will be dependent on the coordination, cooperation, expertise, and ambition of all the staff and volunteers on the SDBG team.

Reflecting on that empty dirt lot years ago, I may have then thought this would be a daunting task. Instead, the interim years have instilled such confidence in the community that supports this Garden that I am only looking to the future with eagerness and excitement. Please join us in celebrating the opening of this amazing new community asset and take pride in the fact that we could not have done this without your help.