Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's National Aquarium: the gardens

Photo credit: Baltimore Sun/Jed Kirschbaum

What you might not notice in your rush to see the sharks, the dolphins and the jellyfish at Baltimore's National Aquarium are the gardens.

Seven gardens, to be exact, in the aquarium's Waterfront Park. They were installed to illustrate the plant life of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, from the lowest point -- the salt marsh and wetlands -- to the highest -- the Allegheny mountains.


There are 90,000 square feet of garden space at the entrance to the aquarium and even the stone paths around them are designed to illustrate the tides and waves of the bay.

Chris Partain is the senior horticulturalist at the aquarium -- the plant person among all those fish people -- and she is in charges of keeping the gardens filled with native plants, including the salt march beds that require her to dust them 50 pounds of salt every week.


(View Jed Kirschbaum's photo gallery of the gardens.)

"You can see the beds actually rise to reflect the topography," she said. "And each bed has a water feature." The beds also have plant markers to help visitors learn about native plants, and story boards that talk about the role that particular garden and those particular plants play in supporting native insects and birds.

For example, Chris noticed that there were Monarch butterflies migrating in the area, but they did not have their favorite plants on which to rest and eat. She planted some swamp milkweed, and last summer the plants were covered with the caterpillars that would soon be monarchs.

"One of our staff saw a scarlet tanager, and that is a bird you only see in the deep woods," she said. Indeed, the gardens are planted with native trees, as well as native plants. White pine, loblolly pine, magnolia, dogwood, oaks and maples. Redbuds and service berries.

On the ground, there are ferns, foam flowers, May apples, spiderwort, Jack-in-the-pulpit, as well as blueberries and the very fragrant swam azalea.

The garden that represents the highlands underwent a major renovation this spring when it became clear that the clay soil wasn't a good environment. So Chris and her workers dug deep and replaced the clay with gravel and soil, including five cubic yards of compost that had been generated by aquarium visitors in the cafeteria.

The new plantings in that bed are small, but they appear to be healthy, especially the "volunteer" dogwood tree around which the entire operation took place -- in order not to disturb it.

The gardens were designed by Rhodeside & Harwell of Virginia and funded by a donation from the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation, and they were not well received at first because of their informal -- well, natural -- design.


Aquarium neighbors were used to more formal gardens, planted and replanted with seasonal annuals and impeccably groomed.

"Now, everybody wants one like ours," said Chris.

But the gardens continue indoors where visitors are met by a 35-foot waterfall and a "trout stream" underneath, representing the Alleghany Cascades. The Waterfront Park allows any aquarium visitor to travel from Maryland's marshlands to her mountain ranges and notice the plant life of each stop along the way -- all during a lunch hour.