New director aims to increase visitors to UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens

Tropical orchids and cacti are in the McMillan Greenhouse, with carnivorous, bug-devouring pitcher plants growing in a courtyard. Outside are rambling flower beds, ornamental shrubs and trees in the three gardens at UNC Charlotte.

With so much work done, Jeff Gillman, the new director of the botanical gardens, sees an important role for himself in outreach.

The former University of Minnesota professor says he plans to use his expertise with plants and communication skills gained as an author and writer to create broader appreciation for the 10-acre property and its collections.

And, ultimately, he’d like to see more visitors strolling the grounds through the seasons.

“What I hope to do is get the public more involved with this botanical garden,” Gillman said. “We have some really wonderful areas here.”

Gillman credits longtime former director Larry Mellichamp with planting most of what visitors will see in the gardens today. Gillman said Mellichamp started as a student of biology professor Herbert Hechenbleikner, who created the garden in 1966 with UNC Charlotte founder Bonnie Cone on the newly established campus. The gardens have grown up with the university.

Now about 24,000 people a year visit the gardens. With more than 27,000 students enrolled last year and a vibrant community around the gardens, Gillman sees opportunities for stronger public engagement. He hopes for as many as 100,000 visitors a year.

How does he think he can accomplish that?

“By doing everything that I’ve done in the past,” he said. “By writing about gardens, speaking and making the gardens relevant. We’ve got a lot of ways we can show people how plants affect their lives and how plants affect the quality of their lives.”

One of his favorite specimens, for example, is a vanilla plant – or vine, to be more precise. It’s a type of orchid and grows in the McMillan Greenhouse.

“You come here and see this plant and how long it takes to produce vanilla beans ... that makes you appreciate vanilla more,” he said. “I’m a vanilla person. I wouldn’t want to be without the vanilla plant.”

He’d also like to bring lunchtime concerts to the gazebo in the Susie Harwood Garden as a way to draw in visitors.

As an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture Science at the University of Minnesota, Gillman directed the activities of the Teaching, Research and Extension Nursery. Eight acres are devoted to research and the education of university students and the general public.

Gillman moved to Charlotte to be closer to his wife’s family. For two years he was an instructor for the Department of Horticulture Technology at Central Piedmont Community College.

If you want to get Gillman’s undivided attention, turn the conversation to home remedies for plants. He’s been known to conduct his own tests to prove or disprove the effectiveness of homespun concoctions he’s heard people recommend for controlling insects, plant diseases and other problems that can hinder plants. He’s even written a book on the subject, “The Truth About Garden Remedies.”

“He wants to instill that sense of scientific inquiry in everyone,” said Chad Giblin, who worked with Gillman for 15 years at the University of Minnesota. “Don’t believe in everything you hear. Do your own experiments in your backyard. Test it for yourself.”

In case you were wondering:

▪ Does mouthwash help control diseases on plants? It does, he said, but it also can burn the plant.

▪ Do chili peppers or garlic help control problems with insects? Marginally, according to Gillman’s tests. But those remedies work better than doing nothing.

▪ Milk can help control diseases such as powdery mildew and black spot on roses, based on his experiments. The active ingredient is a chemical called lactoferrin. It probably won’t work as well as commercial products, but it’s not bad, Gillman said. He combines one part whole milk to two parts water. Spray it weekly onto roses, preferably in the morning.

Eventually Gillman would like to leave his mark on the university’s gardens by adding to the collections. But for now, he’s committed to highlighting what’s already there.

“It’s going to be fun because my predecessors created this fantastic garden,” he said. “I get to spend my time bringing it to people.”

Karen Sullivan: 704-358-5532, @Sullivan_kms

Jeff Gillman

Professional experience: Associate professor, University of Minnesota, Department of Horticulture Science. Instructor for the Department of Horticulture Technology at Central Piedmont Community College for about two years.

Age: 45.

Hometown: Pughtown, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb.

Education: Bachelor’s degree from Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pa.; master’s degree in entomology and doctorate in horticulture from University of Georgia.

Family: Wife, Suzanne Gillman, and two children.

Gardening books: “The Truth About Organic Gardening,” “How Trees Die,” “How the Government Got in Your Backyard (co-written with Eric Heberlig),” and “Decoding Gardening Advice.”

Other publications: Contributing editor, Fine Gardening.

Social media: Look for The Garden Professors page.

Want to go?

The outdoor gardens are open to the public during daylight hours every day, 9090 Craver Road.

McMillan Greenhouse is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 1-4 p.m. Sundays Free admission. Visitor parking is across Craver Road from the greenhouse.