As the months-long vaccine rollout chugs on, people continue to look for outdoor, distanced events and outings.
A favorite day trip locally lies just east of Harrisburg, and the staff there is gearing up for the busy growing season ahead.
Hershey Gardens is open year-round, but its visitor numbers accelerate once the spring annuals and perennials begin to bloom.
“There are so many things I love about working here,” said Amy Zeigler, senior director of Hershey Gardens. “The team here is so invested with their jobs. I think I love that the most, along with the gardens always looking so beautiful.”
The gardens’ story starts, not surprisingly, with local chocolate entrepreneur Milton S. Hershey, who was reputed to have quite the green thumb. His backyard gardens, filled with beautiful homegrown roses that he and wife Catherine lovingly nurtured each year, attracted sightseers from near and far.
The community needed, Hershey decided, gardens that the public could call its own.
In 1936, he commissioned plans for the construction of a 3.5-acre spread of rose gardens not far from the amusement park he created. Planting began that fall under the direction of horticulturist Harry Erdman. A completed facility was opened in June 1937 as the Hershey Rose Garden.
It wasn’t long before the garden began to grow bigger. In May 1938, a new section of terraced roses was added below the original flowerbeds. The following year, even more sections of roses took root, increasing the venue’s total size to more than six acres.
Over the years, the Hershey Rose Garden continued to expand. By 1979, the entire spread had expanded to six themed gardens and was formally renamed as Hershey Gardens. In 1989, the gardens were placed under ownership and operation of the nonprofit M.S. Hershey Foundation.
Today, Hershey Gardens’ operational costs are funded through grants, donations and memberships. However, 75 percent of the gardens’ annual revenue derives from guest admission fees, Zeigler said.
As for many, 2020 was a difficult year for Hershey Gardens, which was closed for four months. The pandemic caused financial hardship, resulting in an inability to purchase a full quantity of tulip bulbs. But, according to Hershey Gardens’ website, any gaps in the display will be taken up by other flowers.
Today, the busy staff is hard at work getting things back to normal for the busy spring and summer seasons.
Each morning, activity starts way before the facility opens to the public at 10 a.m.
“In the summer, we start at 6 a.m. In the off-season, we start at 7 a.m.,” said Alyssa Hagerman, Hershey Gardens’ horticultural specialist. “We do the messy work like watering and [cleaning up]. After opening, we do things like mulching, mowing and weeding. The guests see it all.”
Besides Hagerman, the gardens’ staff includes Zeigler, four full-time gardeners, up to 12 part-time gardeners, an operations manager, crew foremen and a network of volunteers.
Hagerman is responsible for designing the seasonal displays, and she “tries to make them look a little bit different each year,” she said.
She started out at the gardens 11 years ago as part of the grounds staff and “still goes out in the gardens and gets dirty,” she said. Her greatest on-the-job challenges? Weeds, pests on roses, and despite the staff’s best deterring efforts, deer as overnight visitors.
Job perks, however, appear to balance out any workday challenges encountered on the picturesque grounds.
“I really do like designing seasonal displays,” she said. “I enjoy being outside so much every day.”
The most popular season for visitors is summer, Zeigler said.
By then, 3,500 roses in the historic Hershey Rose Garden color the landscape in prime bloom, along with marigolds and other summer annuals. In autumn, mums, pumpkins, straw bales and seasonal annuals dot the grounds. In winter, visitors can stroll through the arboretum, Oak Grove and the most recent addition, the Milton & Catherine Hershey Conservatory. In total, the 23-acre venue boasts 10 themed gardens with intermittent seasonal displays.
Then there’s the year-round list of special events. For instance, on April 17, the gardens will host a virtual program, “The Nesting Needs and Behaviors of Bluebirds,” with Dean Rust, president of the Bluebird Society of Pennsylvania.
The most popular event each year takes place in May over Mother’s Day weekend, a Saturday/Sunday treat that offers free admission to all visiting mothers. Due to high demand, the event recently was expanded from being held on Sunday only. On the Friday before Mother’s Day, mom can tiptoe through the tulips with a special half-off coupon for her admission.
Hagerman strongly suggests visiting when the large, showy hydrangeas are in bloom later in the season, which are among her favorite flowers.
“They’re so big and just fantastic,” she said. “But I haven’t met a plant I don’t really like.”
Hershey Gardens is located at 170 Hotel Rd., Hershey. For more information, visit www.hersheygardens.org.
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