New Director Heads State Arboretum Foundation

Most visitors to Virginia’s State Arboretum this time of year look out across the leafy vistas stretching away to the Blue Ridge and see fall foliage splashed with reds and yellows. The Arboretum’s many open meadows and fencerows mingled with towering mature trees offer stunning vistas and pastoral beauty.

The autumnal beauty of the State Arboretum, located at Blandy Experimental Farm in Clarke County, Virginia, is not lost on Martha Bjelland but her vision goes beyond that of the casual visitor.

“This place is one big teaching tool that helps people learn about the importance of preserving and protecting nature” Bjelland said while strolling with a visitor along the gravel road that encircles the Arboretum. “I love it because it’s open to everyone; families, joggers, students. Anyone can come here and experience this extraordinary resource just sixty miles from Washington, DC and it’s all free. I just think that’s very cool.”

Arboretum Foundation Director Martha Bjelland (l) greets Blandy School Program Presenter Robin Coutts and students from nearby Powhatan School - Photo Edward Leonard

After just three short months since coming to Blandy as a fundraiser in Maine, it would be easy to mistake Bjelland for the State Arboretum’s leading enthusiast rather than her actual role as Foundation Director of the State Arboretum. While touring the grounds Bjelland frequently stops to point out a particularly interesting tree or plant species but professes little formal knowledge of botany or environmental science. Rather, Bjelland’s expertise and responsibility lie in ensuring that the funds necessary to maintain the Arboretum’s nearly $3 million annual operating budget.

“I think that in a way I’m here to make up for all of the science classes that I didn’t pay attention to when I was in school” Bjelland said. “I strongly believe in the mission here. I could never do a job that I didn’t believe in.”

The State Arboretum’s 175 acres make up only a portion of the 712 acres that Graham Blandy donated to the University of Virginia in 1926. In recent years, research activities have focused on plant-herbivore interactions, insect population dynamics, optimal foraging, plant succession, plant reproductive ecology, and the influence of landscape structure on the demography, distribution and persistence of small mammal and insect populations. Research activity is particularly pronounced during the summer months with Blandy providign opportunities for 20-25 undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral researchers to conduct ecological research in residence.

“The lion’s share of our operating budget comes from Blandy’s endowment, and income stream has been reduced by 20% from the previous fiscal year” said Blandy’s director, Dr. David Carr in the arboretum’s 2009 annual report. “Our next most important source of funds comes through the University of Virginia from the state, and that income has been cut by almost 15 percent.”

Raising the money to keep the Arboretum solvent is a big job but Bjelland is all confidence when asked if it is difficult to raise money to support trees. Bjelland’s approach is to put describe the human benefits that the Arboretum offers when looking for financial support.

Peetwood Pavilion will soon have glass doors that allow the gathering area to be used year round - Photo Edward Leonard

“Eighty seven percent of our individual donors contribute because they believe in the Arboretum’s mission” Bjelland said. “The Arboretum represents not just tress but also caring about nature, educational outreach, research and environmental science. I talk to founders about all of those things.”

Although academic research is a major part of the work at Blandy, Bjelland emphasizes the large number of individuals, especially students and families, who visit each year. Last year’s visitation to the facility was 146K people, however, 125K were classified as “casual” visitors who simply came for a visit or an event. For example, weddings held at Blandy accounted for over 800 guests, nearly 6,000 students visited as part of a school program and over 9,000 people attended events held at the facility.

Bjelland says that the Arboretum holds two annual fund-raising events; The spring garden festival offers “hard core” gardeners a chance to purchase plants for the coming growing season while the fall ArborFest is a family-friendly event geared to showcase the Arboretum.

As Bjelland and her visitor walked the Arboretum’s paths on a recent weekday afternoon the grounds felt nearly deserted for much of the visit. Bjelland enthusiastically pointed out a large open-air pavilion with a massive stone fireplace and chimney in one end as she described public outreach projects for the coming year.

“This is Peetwood Pavilion. It’s a wonderful place to hold meetings and classes but as you can see, it’s open to the weather.” Bjelland said that $65K of the $100K needed to add sliding glass doors to the pavilion had already been raised and that she hopes to raise the additional funds in the coming year.

Peetwood Pavilion was built in 2003 and provides access to several of Blandy’s habitats and collections for school groups, summer nature camps and other programs and activities.

Beyond the pavilion Bjelland described Blandy’s Garden for the Community, established in spring 2008, to provide garden plots for community residents. In exchange for garden space, gardeners agree to donate a portion of what they grow to area food banks and soup kitchens. The garden project donates hundreds of pounds of fresh produce a year.

Foundation of the State Arboretum Director Martha Bjelland - Photo Edward Leonard

“We give a lot of food back to the community each year” Bjelland said. “We are an incredibly “green” resource” for the local community and a great place if you’re looking for somewhere to volunteer.”

Bjelland said that Blandy offers many activities for the general public, including workshops, tours, illustrated talks, volunteer opportunities and special events. Many of the programs emphasize horticulture and environmental topics. Children’s programs include summer nature camps, winter natural history programs and special events. Blandy’s staff also frequently called on to provide on-site and off-site talks to garden clubs, nonprofits and civic organizations.

Although Bjelland responsibilities include raising money for all of the Arboretum’s visitors and program’s, her voice betrays the joy she finds in knowing that young people can come to Blandy and spend an hour, or a day, learning in the safe and well-maintained grounds.

As if to emphasize Bjelland’s understanding of her client’s needs, Heather Barrera and her just-turned-two-year-old daughter Sophia were the only other people encountered on Blandy’s trails that day. Despite the isolation Barrera said that she and Sophia regularly make the trip to Blandy from Stevens City because it’s safe place to walk and to learn.

“Sophia can come here are run along in front of me and we feel safe” Barrera said. “Because everything is labeled I feel like we learn something new every time that we come here.”

Barrera said she and Sophia had discovered medlar trees on a nearby hill that day and had also found a spot with persimmons lying all over the ground.

Although Blandy Experimental Farm and the State Arboretum could be considered as distant outposts from the University of Virginia and its fund-raising orbit, Bjelland characteristically emphasizes the positive aspects of her situation.

“Even though we’re not physically close to the campus, UVa is like an umbrella that everyone operates under” Bjelland said. “Being here is great. It’s a chance to spread the word about the University of Virginia all the way up here in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.”

End-of-season gourds hang in Blandy's community garden - Photo Edward Leonard

Programs go on at the State Arboretum, located at Blandy Experimental Farm in Clarke County, Virginia, year-round. On October 28th from 7-9 pm Shenandoah University and the State Arboretum will presentForest Trials: Restoration of the American Chestnut  at Shenandoah University. The special program is being co-hosted by the

Shenandoah University  Department of Environmental Studies. Tickets are ONLY available through the SU box office. Cost is $10 for Friends of the State Arboretum, non-members $12. SU students & staff free.

Please call 540-665-4569 for additional information.