A growing legacy in Dover; Parks’ plants to beautify riverfront garden

Monday, October 8, 2007

DOVER — As Joe Parks discusses the intricacies of hybridizing plants, proudly perched on a bench in his “secret garden,” his passion is contagious. So when Dover Main Street approached him about being the namesake for a proposed community garden, the honor was overwhelming.

“It’s impossible to get over the delight,” Parks said. “It’s a real thrill that just does not go away. Maybe I’ll get used to it like you get used to a new baby in the family, but I’m not sure.”

The 91-year-old Dover resident is more than just a namesake for the garden. Parks is personally designing the garden and at least 100 plants are being transferred from his six-acre Long Hill Road garden to the riverfront public garden between the Central Avenue and Chestnut Street bridges.

The 1,300-foot-long garden will showcase a hedge of holly along nearby residential properties as well was pockets of hosta, begonia and tree peonies. Parks has also made a point to include native New Hampshire plants, such as jack-in-the-pulpits and trillium.

Each of the plants were specifically chosen not only for their bloom, but their aesthetic contribution throughout the year.

“A garden is a 12-month thing,” Parks said. “The flowers are just a peak.”

The plants were chosen more strategically than simply by aesthetics, though. Each plant is also climate appropriate and requires little maintenance.

“One of the things about Joe’s plants is that they are appropriate to our climate,” Beth Fischer, Dover Main Street coordinator for the Joe B. Parks Public Garden project, said. “I wanted a project that would be stable, and plants that would be drought tolerant. Each time we choose a plant, we make sure that it has those kinds of criteria because we don’t want to saddle the city with a project that is fussy.”

Since moving to New Hampshire in the early 1970s, Parks has become known for his ability to hybridize warm weather and fragile plants, notably rhododendrons, to both sustain the New England environment and resist insects. He served as president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Rhododendron Society from 1994 to 1996 and received the silver medal award from the organization in 2006. Parks has also been asked to register his garden with the Smithsonian Institution.

Parks said he has hybridized hundreds of rhododendrons, but he has only registered about 20, and is working on paperwork for about 20 more. Many sit in his garden, labeled with names given by Parks’, such as Laura W., named after the First Lady, and Big George, which Parks said he named long before President Bush took office.

Although he is well known for his work in horticulture, Parks said he has never taken a single course in the subject and has worked most of his life in business and real estate, managing property and restoring houses around Dover. But the hobby has been a part of his life since he was a child, drawing inspiration from a family farm in Oklahoma.

Parks began hybridizing plants while living in Virginia during the middle of the century, but his work picked up pace after moving to Dover, he said. Parks began work on his garden, nestled among what was then dense forest, before construction on his house was completed. The well-planned garden has now expanded to a series of small gardens connected by a winding pathway. Parks said the extensive garden has been manageable because he just focuses on each individual garden at a time.

Parks hosts visitors and gives tours of his garden throughout the year, but most come during the spring when most of the plants are in bloom. But he does receive an occasional request to see the garden during the nontraditional part of the year. He said he guided a group of a visitors through the garden in the middle of last winter, because they wanted to see the “backbone” of the garden.

The riverwalk park is not the first garden in Dover to take its inspiration from Parks. The Woodman Institute solicited his help to plant a garden near the museum, and although the project remains stalled, Parks said it has been one of his favorite projects.

He has also offered a matching grant to the Adult Learning Center and contributed to the Garrison Players.

Parks said he lives by the philosophy of his father, a minister, who said “the world doesn’t owe you anything, you owe it.” The philosophy, he said, has made him realize there are always others who make it possible to achieve his accomplishments.