Fred Heutte's legacy: Flowering gardens for eastern Virginia

You can thank the late Fred Heutte for many of the flowering trees and shrubs that embellish so many city streets, private yards and public gardens in Hampton Roads

Beauties like camellias that flower fall, winter and spring, azaleas that bloom with dogwoods and crape myrtles that show off 100 days of summer color.

It was his vision and love for all plants that introduced those species to our area during his gardening career.

"The legacy of Fred Heutte is forever woven into the cities and gardens of eastern Virginia," says Eddie Anderson, owner of McDonald Garden Center, who knew Heutte in his retirement years. Heutte was 80 when he died in 1979.

"My memory of Fred was that he was a real gardener. He knew gardening, he loved it and he lived it. I still have the shovel he used and it was used."

The legacy of Heutte, who used government stimulus money from the 1930s to shape what is now Norfolk Botanical Garden, lives on in the Fred Heutte Center, a nonprofit horticultural center in the Ghent section of Norfolk. There, residents enjoy its gardens and attend programs and meetings in a restored 1887 ferry terminal building that served Norfolk-Portsmouth ferry riders until 1952. The center organizes an annual Urban Gardener Lecture Series with low-cost programs for gardeners of all levels, and sponsors spring herb and fall pansy sales.

"Our whole purpose is to have a garden that you can continually visit and see something going on," says Bill Smoot, president of the board of directors for the 400-member Fred Heutte Foundation.

Smoot, a master gardener who lives in Portsmouth, knew Heutte in the 1970s when he was joining a men's garden club at the botanical garden.

"He was a nice man and we owe a lot to what he accomplished," says Smoot.

Heutte, who was born in Paris in 1899 and moved to the United States with his family when he was 12, began working in a New Jersey florist when he was just a young boy. Later stationed with the Army in the Canal Zone of the Panama Canal, he planted hibiscus everywhere, prompting his commanding officer to name him the "company gardener."

After World War I, Heutte married and worked as head gardener at President Coolidge's summer home in the Adirondacks, and then for a University of Virginia professor's wife in Charlottesville. She introduced him to the Norfolk city manager who drove Heutte all over town, discussing how the city could look better. Heutte took that challenge to heart, working as superintendent of parks for Norfolk for almost three decades.

With a religious-like fervor, he did everything he could to turn the city into the gardening capital of America. He was even known for knocking on doors, asking residents to plant crape myrtles.

"Fred planted two crape myrtles for any homeowner that would ask," says Anderson.

"In his book 'Gardening in the Temperate Zone,' Fred urged every gardener to consider the crape myrtle. It was Fred's encouragement that inspired McDonald Garden Center to hold our first Crepe Myrtle Festival in 1982, in order to help keep Hampton Roads focused o this valuable garden treasure."

As parks superintendent, Heutte also launched the Azalea Gardens, now called Norfolk Botanical Garden, hiring 200 unemployed farm hands and women to clear and plant 4,000 azaleas. Today, the botanical garden includes more than 100,000 azaleas, as well as a nationally recognized camellia collection.

"He envisioned a Camellia Trail from Tidewater to Florida, which now exists," says Sally Simon, a leader in the Virginia Camellia Society and founder of the Fred Heutte Center.

Heutte also started the Norfolk Botanical Garden Society, and used that to help develop the gardens, according to Anderson, who has been a member of its board of directors. Today, the society still guides the botanical garden's vision.

At the Fred Heutte Center, Smoot shows visitors how he and other volunteers continue to maintain Heutte's dream that public gardens and mini urban parks can benefit anyone of any age, income and gender.

An heirloom vegetable garden annually yields about 200 pounds of produce that's donated to the local food bank. A morning yoga group meets in an upstairs room where members can look down on the gardens.

"It's a really nice view up there," says Smoot, pointing to a second floor that was added to the terminal building.

Programs at the center teach homeowners how to make rain barrels, whip up herbal ice cream and create holiday decorations. The site can also be rented for small weddings, reception and other social gatherings.

"We are happy to give tours and share the history of the center," says Smoot.

"We try to garden year-round and give people something to enjoy whenever they visit. It's what Fred would have wanted."

Heutte happenings

Herbal ice creams & sorbets. 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 26. Billi Parus, Virginia Beach master gardener and member of the Herb Society of America, demonstrates how to make six cooling treats

Botanical bus trip. 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Aug. 28. Ride golf carts while you shop 25-acre Sandy's Plants nursery and then tour Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, both in Richmond.

Ornamental grasses. 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6. Marie Butler, landscape coordinator for the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, shares tips on using heat- and drought-tolerant grasses in your yard.

Square foot gardening. 7 p.m. Sept. 21. Norfolk master gardener guides you on getting the most out of a small vegetable garden.

•Bus trip $35-$45; other programs free for members, $5 nonmembers. Register in advance for all events; 441-2513, e-mail fhcgarden@cox.net or http://www.fredheutte.org.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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