July 13, 1969, opening day of Brookside Gardens, marked the culmination of four years of planning and construction by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. In 1965, the commission began development of a display garden in Wheaton Regional Park on a site formerly owned by Stadler Nursery.
Commission landscape architect Hans Hanses developed the original design, using many European concepts he gleaned while training in Germany and Switzerland. More concerned with aesthetics than formula, his goal was to inspire visitors to the garden by displaying plants that were readily attainable and suitable for the region. Both formal and informal areas were divided into smaller, intimate “rooms” defined by walls, shrubs, or trees. Contrasts of color were used in building materials as well as plants for dramatic effects.
The original grounds of Brookside Gardens were comprised of three formal gardens leading to a Wedding Gazebo, an Azalea Walk on the brow of the hill, plantings around the entrance, and the Conservatory. The Conservatory complex housed office space, a horticultural library, a sub-tropical display house, and a smaller propagation glasshouse (now called the south house) that produced plants for indoor and outdoor displays.
At that time Brookside Gardens was only 25 acres, roughly one-half its current size (54 acres), and had 10 employees. There were 35,000 visitors over the course of the first year.
A new phase of development began in 1972. New gardens were installed over several years, including the Fragrance Garden, the Gude Garden (dedicated by Congressman Gilbert Gude to his father and nurseryman, Adolph Gude) with its popular Japanese Tea House, and the Rose Garden. The Trial Garden (for testing new annuals) and the Aquatic Garden were added later.
The Azalea Walk expansion created space for new shade garden plants while providing vistas over the Aquatic Garden ponds. A Viburnum Collection was developed to feature superior selections of this diverse species, and the Winter Garden was created to display plants with cold-season interest. An early Camellia Garden, decimated by severe winters in the ‘70s, is being restored with the hardier camellias developed by the U.S. National Arboretum.
William and Virginia McCrillis donated McCrillis Gardens to the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 1978. The Conservatory displayed its inaugural Chrysanthemum Show in October 1978. Wings of Fancy Live Butterfly Exhibit and the Garden of Lights both opened in 1997.
Elizabeth Turner made a generous donation so that the Visitors Center could be built. It opened in June 1998. Nestled in the woods, this multiuse building contains a gift shop, information desk, horticultural library, adult and children’s classrooms, auditorium, and offices.
Plantings around the building feature specimens first introduced into the U.S. by Brookside Gardens, plus a charming children’s garden with changing displays designed to encourage children to learn about plants and gardening. A small garden of species native to the eastern U.S. sits outside the adult classroom.
On October 1, 2004, Reflection Terrace was dedicated to the victims of the 2002 sniper shootings in Montgomery County. In 2006, staff and volunteers installed a labyrinth in the Gude Garden for meditation and enjoyment. Most recently, in 2007, the Rock Garden near the Conservatory entrance was replaced by a Rain Garden to correct localized drainage issues and serve as an environmental demonstration for the public. Brookside Gardens is constantly changing – featuring new displays and exploring new themes.
2009 and Beyond: Brookside Gardens Master Plan
The Montgomery County Planning Board approved a Master Plan for Brookside Gardens, paving the way for garden-wide renovations and improvements. This 15-phase plan was developed by Gardens staff in cooperation with landscape architecture firm EDAW, Inc., as well as volunteers and visitors. It will be implemented over the next 20 to 25 years. Comprehensive details are on display in the Gardens’ library.
Brookside Gardens is committed to helping fund the Master Plan through private donations, ensuring that the future holds the promise of improved facilities, enhanced garden areas, and innovative new displays.
The first phase of the plan is the renewal of the Gardens’ main entrance to reinforce the Visitors Center as the heart of the space, and to create a welcoming arrival area with site-specific artwork. The renewal will also solve current safety issues.
The second phase includes expanding the parking lot and improving storm water management.
Phase three will focus on stabilizing the banks of the two streams that act as boundaries for the Gardens, and allow for new ornamental plantings to take advantage of the charming stretches of water that affirm the name “Brookside Gardens.”
Today, Brookside Gardens encompasses 54 acres, with 32 acres of cultivated gardens. There are 29 career staff, 50 part-time staff, and more than 1,000 volunteers. Approximately 414,150 people visited the Gardens last year. Brookside Gardens thanks the staff, volunteers, visitors, and the surrounding community for contributing to its rich history.
Current Director: Stephanie Oberle (2008 – to date)
- David Vismara (1994)
- Els Benjamin (1979)
- Bob Haehle (1976)
- Carl Hahn (1969)