Shangri La Garden’s Joseph Johnson to tend to Texas A&M’s The Gardens

June 23, 2016

Joseph Johnson can attest to a garden’s healing properties. Before he planted himself in Orange to restore Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center after Hurricane Ike, Johnson converted parking areas next to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston from asphalt to flower beds that helped patients mend emotionally.

Now, the 1988 graduate of Texas A&M University, is planning a homecoming to become program director of The Gardens, a 40-acre tract along both banks of White Creek on the west side of the campus in College Station.

“It will be a teaching garden,” said Johnson, Shangri La’s director of horticulture for the past six years.

The Gardens will feature vegetable gardens, a fruit orchard, pecan bottoms, a wine grape vineyard, herb garden, food and fiber fields, German Heritage and Mexican Heritage gardens that reflect cultural influences in Texas, wildflower meadows, a prairie grassland and a post oak savannah, which is the nature of the Bryan-College Station geography.

Johnson said a former professor urged him to apply in March, and Johnson won out over a national candidate field of about 50.

Surprisingly, until now one of the largest land-grand universities in the country hasn’t had a garden complex.

So Johnson will work from the ground up. He will oversee construction and maintenance, coordinate with professors and volunteers and with the master gardener and junior master gardener programs.

The opportunity to help create a teaching garden program at A&M is like winning the lottery for a horticulturist, but the downside is leaving behind the richness of the Shangri La Botanical Gardens, with 20 acres of garden “rooms” that are available to the public, plus the pontoon boat trips into the Nature Preserve on Adams Bayou and the continued development of H.J. Lutcher Stark’s legacy, begun in the 1930s.

Though battered by a freak snowstorm in 1958, torn apart in 2005 by the blunt-force wind of Hurricane Rita and mercilessly salted by the Hurricane Ike storm surge in 2008, Shangri La was nursed back to health with Johnson’s help.

The botanical garden became the first project in Texas and 50th in the world to earn the U.S. Green Building Council’s Platinum certification for design and construction at the highest green building and performance measures.

It has reclaimed downed cypress for some of its buildings, used recycled brick for others, uses solar panels to generate 40 percent of its electricity and collects rain water so it can nourish plants without chlorine and other chemicals. It aerates a lake to pull supply from it for irrigation, sending the water back after plants have leached out nitrogen.

Another lake serves as a home for herons, who never have to leave because of plentiful fish.

A cypress-tupelo swamp is home to a small fish with a voracious appetite for mosquito larvae.

As Johnson toured Shangri La’s walking trails and pavilions on Wednesday, he greeted volunteers and grounds people alike with a broad smile, including the resident barn owl, Maxine.

“Everything here is done organically,” Johnson said. “We’ll try to do as much as A&M.“He paused for a bit at what’s called the Cypress Gate on the Pond of the Blue Moon, a name borrowed from the novel “Lost Horizon,” from which the name Shangri La sprang. In the novel, it was the Valley of the Blue Moon in which Shangri La could be found, but valleys are hard to come by on a coastal prairie.

“This might be my favorite place here,” he said.

DWallach@BeaumontEnterprise.com Twitter.com/dwallach