Mark Weathington Interview

North Carolina Press Release
A 2018 interview with Mark Weathington, Director of JC Raulston Arboretum
by Robert B. Butler

Robert: Mark, tell us about the JC Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University.

Mark: "The JC Raulston Arboretum is a research arboretum devoted to evaluating plant material for use in Southeastern landscapes. We have a constantly changing collection, so the hallmarks of the arboretum are the diversity of the plant material that we grow. Based on benchmarking by the American Public Gardens Association, JC Raulston Arboretum is one of the most diverse botanic gardens, ranked in the top 95th percentile in terms of plant diversity. Our two big focuses are bringing in plants and evaluating the, and distributing them to people, and then education people about plants, gardening, and the natural world."

Robert: What is Moonlight in the Garden?

Mark: "The Arboretum is a very mission driven organization, so every time we do an event, we look at how it pertains to our mission. Moonlight in the Garden is an opportunity for us to light up the garden and share with individuals and families what a magical place the Arboretum can be at night. The lighting displays and the artistic uses of lights shows how different a garden looks at night and what can be done in a garden to make it a useful space all day and into the night."

Robert: What is the history of Moonlight in the Garden?

Mark: "Years ago, Moonlight in the Garden was a very different event designed for a very small number of people in the professional community. 2018 will be the third consecutive year of expansion of the exhibition to include children, families, individuals, plus members of the professional community. We're excited about sharing Moonlight in the Garden on a larger scale."

Robert: When is Moonlight in the Garden?

Mark: "Moonlight in the Garden is the second and third weekends in November, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights."

Robert: Why November?

Mark: "Well, for one, November is the fallback time change, and that really makes a difference in terms of when the garden gets dark enough to see it well. Combined with the colorful and interactive lighting exhibition, Moonlight in the Garden is a chance to bundle up, welcome the fall season to North Carolina, dine at the best food trucks, enjoy the live music, have some hot cider, and roast marshmallows over the fire pits."

Robert: How many times per year does the arboretum provide a nighttime lighting exhibition?

Mark: "One time. Moonlight in the Garden."

Robert: How many nights is Moonlight in the Garden?

Mark: "Six nights."

Robert: Is there limited capacity each night?

Mark: "Yes. We encourage individuals and families to order tickets in advance online."

Robert: When do you begin planning and designing for Moonlight in the Garden?

Mark: "When Moonlight in the Garden is over, we take up miles of cable and lights, take a deep breath, and don't think about it through the holidays. But then in January, February, we start thinking about it, making plans, and start moving forward. So, it's really about a full year endeavor."

Robert: How many suppliers, manufacturers, and volunteers are involved?

Mark: "The lighting industry has been very supportive in donating and discounting materials. Last year, we had somewhere on the order of 70 or 80 volunteers. Some of the volunteers assist John Garner of Southern Lights with the cable and lighting installation, based on his creative design. Other volunteers help with the luminaries, ticket-taking, hot cider and marshmallows, way finding in the Arboretum, and helping the bands and food trucks each night. Moonlight in the Garden is a huge undertaking and would not be possible without the many hundreds of hours contributed by the volunteers."

Robert: Do children enjoy Moonlight in the Garden?

Mark: "Yes. We have lots of activities, but children love being in the garden. One of the most rewarding aspects is the exhibition's fascination for children and people of all ages. Moonlight in the Garden appeals to every age group in a way that other garden related activities don't usually do."

Robert: Is Moonlight in the Garden a good teaching moment for children and families?

Mark: "I truly believe that children respond well to beauty. Sometimes what they see as beautiful is different from what adults see. I think it's incredibly valid to have children appreciate and enjoy something that just looks and feels magical. While one of our primary focuses is education, Moonlight in the Garden is one of the times when we really want people to enjoy the garden."

"There's a real problem with what is called nature deficit disorder, where children just aren't connected to the natural world. And anything you do that gets them out and looking at plants, and gardens, and natural areas, is a really important thing, and I think it's a powerful way to instill an appreciation for the environment around them."

Robert: Is Moonlight in the Garden a valuable experience for students, professional planners, and landscapers?

Mark: "It is. We do some evenings before we open to the public that are strictly for landscape architects, designers, and landscape professionals to come in and really get a sense of what we're designing, how we're designing, what different intensities of light will do, in terms of cooling things down and heating things up, and showcasing plants, all the up lighting and down lighting, and different ways you can do that. So that's a real focus on the professional side. But then when non-professional people go though, it really gives them a sense of things they could do differently in their landscapes, large or small. My wife is not a gardener, but when she walked through the first time, her first reaction was, "We need to get some lighting in our garden at home." Lighting a garden resonates with people in a really profound way. I think it does inspire people to want to have something like that around themselves."

Robert: The photos are very beautiful, and so many of the displays are magical. Do you think the lighting of plants is an art form?

Mark: "It certainly is. The first year of Moonlight in the Garden, I was with a group of about 25 or 30 design professionals. John talked a little bit about what he does, then we started walking through the Arboretum. It was magical and amazing. This is not going to a big box store and buying a kit of lights and sticking them in the ground. There is a real art form and a real thought process that goes into the exhibition being done well. And, if it's done well, you don't know how much thought has gone into doing it."

Robert: What is your favorite exhibit?

Mark: Well, one lighting exhibit we kept on permanent display is called Fireflies, from a lighting artist in Texas. It's basically copper tubes with a relatively dim warm light, and we have them hung at our entrance from our live oak trees. When the breeze blows, they kind of move and look like fireflies above you. When it's still, it's almost like stars, you're seeing the stars through the trees. I really think that's magical.
"Another thing that that people really enjoy is the effects lights, where lighting can be manipulated via your smart phone. Where you can change the type of lighting, the colors and intensity, creating a range of artistic settings and moods from dramatic to tranquil and everything in between."

"Moonlight in the Garden offers a different way of thinking about your lights outside. Of course, inside, people are doing that more and more with lighting technology. What you can do with your landscape is pretty amazing."

Robert: How does the lighting exhibition change the character and personality of the plants in the Arboretum? And, do plants actually have character and personality?

Mark: "Oh, plants definitely have character and personality. The form of plants is something that those of us who spend all their time looking, thinking about plants, we take it for granted a lot of times. But other people, they'll walk through a garden and say, "Isn't this lovely." Especially in the spring when the flowers are out, and that kind of thing. So, when you start lighting, like some of these beautiful Japanese maples that are weeping that have this really just striking form, this sculptural form, all of a sudden, people who otherwise wouldn't normally pay that much attention an individual tree, start looking at it as though it is a piece of art. Or, a plant that has a really wispy branches, or a grass that moves in the breeze, and the way that gets lit really accentuates that movement of the plant and it brings a new life to the garden. There's one area where there's moonlighting, as we call it, and these are these soft, kind of white, cool lights, set up high in the trees that you can't see, that cast this glow across the ground. It really feels like walking out in a moonlit night. And because it's that silvery white light that you would get a full moon, some of the plants there that have a little bit of silver in the leaves and white in the leaves, really shine and reflect back some of that light. And it really gives you this appreciation for not just some of the trees and shrubs, but for the evergreen perennials and flowers kind of give off. They almost glow as you walk through there."

Robert: What else can visitors expect to see and enjoy at Moonlight in the Garden?

Mark: "Well, we always do something unusual, something different, in terms of an artistic look. If visitors come to the last house, there's going to be some really different and interesting lighting. We're still working out the final details. The last house is the area that has two by two open grid on the tops and sides. And it gives us an opportunity to be able to hang some things down and do different things there, so I think that'll be a lot of fun. And, combined with the inspiring and colorful lighting exhibition, Moonlight in the Garden is bringing in preferred food trucks, first-rate live entertainment with local musicians, warm apple cider, marshmallows, and fire pits. We really try and make it a value for family."

Robert: What happens to the proceeds?

Mark: "The proceeds from Moonlight in the Garden help fund our mission driven activities. We're part of North Carolina State University, but we have to generate about 84 percent of our operating costs. So we are mostly self-funded. These programs help us underwrite our education, especially our children's education programs. It helps us underwrite staff, mostly our gardening staff and our education staff. And help us pay the bills, keep the lights on, pay for phones and internet, that sort of thing."

Robert: My next question was, what is the relationship with JC Raulston Arboretum to North Carolina State University and the foundation at NCSU?

Mark: "The arboretum is in the Department of Horticultural Science, so I report to the department head of Horticultural Science. We are a living laboratory for the university, so we have horticultural students who come out and do landscape construction projects do plant ID, learn soil testing, fertilization, and really use the arboretum for a variety of hands on learning experiences. But we also work with the forestry department because we have a wide range of plants, and they'll use the arboretum to work on making Christmas tree hybrids that are more heat tolerant and better for North Carolina. We work with entomology students who come out and trap and test insects, and the School of Design does projects out here. Really, we hit a wide variety of students who are engaged with mostly the life sciences, but also Chemistry, AG engineering, and AG education, all use the arboretum at various points."

"So that's how we relate with the University. The North Carolina Ag. Foundation, which helps fundraise in a lot of ways, is the development arm for the college. We operate under the umbrella of the NC Ag Foundation, so we're not a separate private nonprofit entity. We do all of our fundraising and revenue generation through the Ag Foundation."

Robert: When did the arboretum begin?

Mark: "The arboretum began in 1976. Doctor JC Raulston, our namesake, came to the university in late 1975, and really started almost immediately planting in the ground. When JC was hired, he was tasked, in part, with growing the North Carolina nursery industry. He had been several other places around the country, and he used what he called the 90, 40 rule meaning 90 percent of the plants that you could buy were the same 40 plants. Or, another way to look at the rule, 40 plants made up 90 percent of the plants you could buy. It might be different plants in North Carolina than in Texas or Florida, but still, there was a very limited palate of plants that were out there. His feeling was, it was going to be very difficult to grow the industry if everybody was growing the exact same things."

"So, JC Raulston, in his words, set out to diversify the American landscape, and just started collecting plants from all over the place, from nurseries, from wild collections, and planting them, and seeing what plants are good for the area. For a lot of gardens, that's kind of where it stops. They grow things, and then the mindset is, people will see these things, they'll think their fantastic, they'll go ask their local nurserymen to get them, and the nurserymen will get them. But that's not the case. Nurserymen need a pipeline of supply of new plants in order to get those to the public. So where JC differed, other than just being so veracious in terms of bringing in plants to evaluate, was the other end of that. That was really supplying plants to the nursery industry, to plant breeders, to other professionals and gardens, to really get them out."
"JC Raulston has been called a plant evangelist, and it really was all about getting the plants form the arboretum into the producer's hands, so it could get to the end user. In that, he was incredibly successful. And a lot of people think that JC introduced just hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of plants. That's not really the case. He introduced the right plants to the right people, and the right people to the right plants, so that they entered the marketplace."

Robert: And do you continue that today?

Mark: "We continue that today very much so. Things have changed a little bit. Now, if you go into just your local big box store, the plants that are available are more diverse than what you were able to get 40 years ago at a very good independent garden center. So now, a lot of what we do with the plants that are being released by the nursery industry, is evaluate them to see which ones are the best ones, which ones are really good performers, and to let people know that. But we also work very closely with all kinds of folks, plant breeders, nurseries, individuals, to evaluate plants that people think might have potential, so see how do they grow under real life conditions? How do they look? Some of those trials are very formal trials, where we have written agreements and signed contracts, others are just people just sharing plants and saying, "Let me know what you think."

"We also go out and do wild collecting. We wild-collect throughout the Southeast and other areas of the country, the Southwest, and bring in plants and evaluate them. And we go to different countries, Taiwan, Japan, China, places like that and collect and evaluate plants. Sometimes, that's to see if those individual plants are going to be good for the nursery industry, other times it's to bring in new genetics for plants that we already grow, and to get those into the hands of the great plant breeders that are around so that they can bring in perhaps more heat tolerance, or more cold tolerance, or disease resistance into plants that we're growing. There's always questions around that. There are a lot of rules and regulations, and inspections, and things that we do. And we're very careful to follow all the rules and regulations, and make sure we're not bringing in anything that could become a pest down the road."

Robert: How many plants and species of plants can be found at the arboretum?

Mark: "There about 7400, give or take, different types of plants. The term we use is taxa of plants, and those are different plants. So we grow a couple of hundred Japanese maples, which are all the same species, but each of those are different selections, cultivars of Japanese maple, so each one is very different from the other."

Robert: Where is the arboretum and how big is the arboretum? And do you have satellite locations?

Mark: "The arboretum is on Beryl Road, in Raleigh. You can access Beryl Road on Hillsborough Street across from the Meredith College campus. The arboretum is 10 and a half acres. We do not currently have any satellite locations. We do share plants with other extension stations across the state, partner sites, so we can evaluate plants growing at the coast and in the mountains."

Robert: What are the future plans for the arboretum?

Mark: "Future plans are to continue with the research that we do, the evaluations and trials that we do. We have for the first time a dedicated plant breeder on staff, Doctor Denny Werner, who was previously director of the Arboretum and a faculty member in the Department for Horticultural Science. We have a couple of new red buds that we're going to be releasing this fall. We are looking at a larger partnership, which would ultimately create a satellite location, but that's not all finalized yet, but that is a goal for the Arboretum, is to have more space for that. We're looking at partnering in some ways with Dix Park in downtown in Raleigh, to work with them. We see gardens not as competition, but as all of the gardens working together for the public good. There's so much room to do all kinds of things out in the community that the more we can work with other folks and leverage what we do to get it farther out there is all to the good."

"We have what we call a dynamic collection. With our limited acreage and our mission to evaluate plants, we are always removing plants and putting in new things, so there's a constant turnover of plant materials. So people can always expect to see different things. Invariably, we cut down or remove somebody's favorite plant, but that's just the nature of what we do, it's constantly evolving."

"We're currently working on the second update of our master plan, our grounds master plan, so we're actively in the process of updating that design. Last iteration was in 2013, so we try and do that every five years or so. A lot of growth and change coming in the next few years."

Robert: What other programs are offered by the Arboretum?

Mark: "Well, we do a lot of children's programing as well. We do very much science, steam based educational programming for kids, summer camps that are all tied back into the science, the mission of what we do, programs starting with preschoolers, with garden story times, all the way up through middle school and high school. And a lot of that is because we're trying to develop the next generation of horticulturists and green industry professionals, but also to instill a real appreciation and love for plants. One of the keys to working at the arboretum, is you have to be passionate about plants. That's the baseline. If you're not passionate about plants, you're not going to be able to translate that passion that we have out to the public, at all levels. That's really important to us. That's a big part."

"We embody the land-grant mission of research, teaching, and extension. I think we're kind of the key to that. What I often tell folks at the university when we're talking to them, is that other than athletics, the JC Raulston Arboretum is the most visible public face of the university beyond athletics, that's a whole separate thing. We're a way that a lot of the community here locally, regionally, and beyond really, their only connection to NC State, is the JC Raulston Arboretum."

Robert: If an individual or organization would like to support the mission of the Arboretum, what is the best way to do that?

Mark: "Membership is very important, and we have different membership levels to meet the needs and interests of individuals and organizations. They can always get in touch and we can talk. If an individual or organization has specific interests that matter to them, there are so many opportunities to help further the mission of the JC Raulston Arboretum, and help them achieve what they'd like. People have so many different passions themselves, whether that's education, or garden, or they want to have a memorial for a loved one or something to recognize somebody special. Memberships, sponsorships, and donations ensure a healthy Arboretum."

"Volunteering is a big way to support to Arboretum. We have all kinds of volunteer opportunities, from indoor activities for people who don't want to be out gardening. Everything from office support, helping us get mailings out, data entry, analyzing data, to interacting with the public at our visitor's center and front desk, to working in the garden, working special events, working with our education folks to bring programming to children or to adults. Volunteers are vital. Last year, 2017, our volunteers put in over 12,400 hours of volunteer service."

Thank you for your time, Mark.

This interview with Mark Weathington may be republished in whole or part without attribution.