by lane page
The Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge is looking for volunteer gardeners to help in the care and upkeep of its lush landscape.
The property, formerly an estate centered around the 1738 manse constructed by newlyweds Caleb and Priscilla Dorsey, once totaled more than 8,000 acres. These days the estate, which is surrounded by Patapsco Valley State Park, is only about 1 percent the size, reports Kevin Hazlett, the center's horticulturalist. Still, the 3 to 5 acres that are cultivated as gardens, including a two-tiered formal lawn surrounded by flower beds, represent a lot of ground for a staff of three to cover.
"We're a low-volume conference facility," explains sales manager Ben Rooney. "We only have 21 bedrooms." While that number sounds just about right for a stately homestead, it pales in comparison to hotels. The full-service conference center offers overnight accommodations for up to 25 corporate guests. The past guest list has included Nobel laureates, Fortune 500 executives and political leaders, as well as guests at the occasional wedding.
With the low-volume business comes a smaller operating budget. That can affect things like grounds maintenance, hence the need for volunteers.
Here's some of what the would-be gardeners will find: The estate's once-famed boxwood has been nibbled down by hungry deer, but its saucer magnolias are thriving. Two huge English elms on the front lawn, as well as a yellow poplar and a black walnut, have been designated state champion trees by the Maryland Forest Association.
Anyone volunteering at Belmont, which is owned by the nonprofit American Chemical Society, can take a cue from current volunteer Linda Lark of Ellicott City. The retired federal government employee readily provides two reasons for her one-morning-per-week involvement.
First is a "spectacular" setting. "England is my second home," Lark says. "Between the manor house and the rolling hills it takes me back." And second, while Lark often finds herself doing something at Belmont that should be done in her own garden, her tasks on the estate are satisfyingly finite. In her own back yard, she laments, the work is never finished.
Some of the effort on the conference center's spacious grounds involves labor-intensive deadheading of annuals and pruning perennials gone by, but Belmont's blooms are safe in Lark's hands. She knows whereof she disposes and doesn't need supervision when assigned a job.
Certified as a master gardener last year by the county's Cooperative Extension Service, Lark brings something to the program at the same time she learns from Hazlett, a graduate of the professional gardener training program at Longwood Gardens, the former estate of Pierre S. du Pont in Kennett Square, Pa.
The center's greenhouse gives her the opportunity to work at plant propagation. In turn, she has brought material from her own garden to try at Belmont. Lark has found the staff open to suggestions; this summer they'll try out her notion of more tropical plantings around the estate's "sort of Bermuda-looking" swimming pool.
Which is not to say Hazlett and company are in need of fresh ideas. Within the past few years they've added vegetable and herb gardens, whose produce goes directly to the conference center kitchens.
It's all in the tradition of the self-sufficiency of bygone days, even up to the early years of the 20th century. Resident spinster sisters Miss Nannie and Miss Florence Hanson, having fallen on hard times, were reported to have made pickles and preserves, which they stored in the ballroom and sold to neighbors.
Fortunately today the gardening at Belmont is for pleasure as well as business. And something more. Says Lark, "Kevin knows I come here for my soul."
Volunteer gardeners can call Belmont at 410-796-4300; ask for Luanne at Ext. 244.
E-mail Lane Page at email@example.com.