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Let it Rain

By Jamie Purinton &  Marc Wolf

A bench provides a restful nook behind the newly designed Education Center with a grouping of Rhododendron prinophyllum (roseshell azalea).

The landscape design of the Mountain Top Arboretum’s new Education Center is aptly inspired by the wondrous native plant communities of the Catskill Mountains. Habitats such as wet meadows and seeps, woodland edges, and bedrock alpine communities completely guided the style and content of the plantings and the stonework. The landscaped areas around the Education Center fall into three primary plant communities: the rain gardens, the woodland edges, and the dry sunny “alpine” areas.

The site planning for the Mountain Top Arboretum’s Education Center included the
barn and barnyard workspaces, the parking area, entry spaces, paths, as well as the rain gardens. This preliminary illustrative plan, prepared by Jamie Purinton, was used by the Mt Top Board for fundraising.

Rain Garden

The rain gardens are a vital component of the landscape, providing unique wet habitats and special planting opportunities. Their key function is to hold back, absorb, and filter stormwater.  After heavy rains, water gathers in the garden depressions and flows from one rain garden to another, following the contours of the land. The plants in these depressions take up the water and help return it to the earth through their root systems. The largest rain garden features a Larix laricina (American larch),  an Alnus incana ssp. rugosa (speckled alder),  Rhododendron prinophyllum (roseshell azalea), as well as the wet-loving Cephalanthus occidentalis (buttonbush) that provide pops of mid-summer white blooms.

The largest rain garden is mature and lush one year after planting. Photo by Marc Wolf

The smaller rain gardens contain trees and shrubs that thrive in wet conditions, such as Carpinus caroliniana (musclewood) and Viburnum lentago (nannyberry) their branches will someday shade visitors’ cars. Beneath the trees and shrubs are a wonderful variety of flowering, water-loving plants including :

Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower) 

Lobelia siphilitica (great blue lobelia) 

Gentiana andrewsii (bottle gentian) 

Mimulus ringens (Allegheny monkeyflower) 

Geum rivale (water avens) 

Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed) 

Iris versicolor (blue flag) 

Verbena hastata (blue vervain)

Lysimachia terrestris (swamp candles) 

Zizea aurea (golden Alexander) 

Chelone glabra (white turtlehead) 

The Education Center featuring Verbena hastata( blue vervain) with Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (slender mountain mint) are great choices for the upper rain garden banks where the moisture levels fluctuate from damp to dry. Photo by Marc Wolf



These plantings follow and reveal the moisture gradients and contours of the depressions.  Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (slender mountain mint) and Rhododendron prinophyllum (roseshell azalea) are some of the plants used on the top of the rain garden banks. Masses of native sedges and rushes provide a full, dense ground cover and beautiful summer and fall seed heads. These ground covers also provide places for frogs and salamanders to hide and keep cool. We hope visitors and student groups will see the beauty and purpose of these rain gardens and be inspired to create these habitats in their home landscapes.



Woodland Edge

Monarda blooms in the sunny edge beside the Education Center, moving from sun to the shade under the big sugar maple. Photo by Marc Wolf

For the woodland edges, we planted an understory including:

Carpinus caroliniana  (American hornbeam)

Ostrya virginiana (eastern hop-hornbeam)          

Acer pensylvanicum (striped maple) 

Sassafras albidum (sassafras)  

Viburnum cassinoides (witherod viburnum

V. nudum (smooth witherod)

The shady outer edges are planted with:

 Aralia racemosa (American spikenard)             

Eurybia divaricata (white wood aster) 

Symphyotrichum cordifolium (heart-leaved aster)     

Aquilegia canadensis (wild columbine) 

Viola canadensis (Canada violet)                                                     

V. labradorica ( Labrador violet)

Solidago caesia (wreath goldenrod)               

Dryopteris marginalis (marginal wood fern) 

Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern) 

Deschampsia flexuosa (wavy hair grass) 

Carex appalachica (Appalachian sedge)

C.pensylvanica (Pennsylvania sedge)

C.plantaginea (seersucker sedge)

Carpinus caroliniana, Viburnum cassinoides, and V. nudum; and sweet ferns are planted along the edges of a work yard and parking area. Photo by Marc Wolf

These form an underlying integrated groundcover that will reduce maintenance needs and create a natural woodland layering of plants. All these plantings soften the border where the landscaped area meets the existing woodland edge and arch around the main building.


The alpine landscape of the Catskill mountaintops is the main inspiration for the open areas around the Education Center, including the circle off the northeast patio. Some of the native plants, already occurring in the nearby thin dry soil of the West Meadow’s exposed bedrock include: 

Sibbaldiopsis tridentata (three-toothed cinquefoil) grows in the nearby West Meadow bedrock which inspired its use around Education Center’s drier areas.



Antennaria plantaginifolia (plantain-leaved pussytoes).   

A. neglecta (field pussytoes)

Houstonia caerulea (bluets) 

Sibbaldiopsis tridentata (three-toothed cinquefoil) 

Danthonia spicata (poverty oat grass) 


Most were established by seeding followed by a season of weeding. These are the perfect plants to live alongside the Education Center’s stone paths and to create a low “tapestry lawn” of native vegetation. Encircling the mowed section of the circular space are taller sun-loving meadow plants including:


Sibbaldiopsis tridentata (three-toothed cinquefoil) grows in the nearby West Meadow bedrock which inspired its use around Education Center’s drier areas.

Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot) 

Penstemon hirsutus (hairy beardtongue)

Asclepias verticillata (whorled milkweed) 

Solidago bicolor (silverrod goldenrod)

S. nemoralis ( gray goldenrod)

These plants provide blooms throughout the season as well as opportunities for local pollinating insects.

This was a true team effort. The overall design and plantings of this new landscape complement the natural and rustic grace of architect Jack Sobon’s timber frame building. Kaaterskill Associates provided valuable stormwater calculations that enabled us to size each rain garden and culvert. Preliminary to final landscape, plans were reviewed by a keen building committee with a focus on educational content as well as meeting the functional needs of parking, stormwater management, visitor engagement, and other needs for a working arboretum.  

In this second year of growth, the Education Building begins to feel grounded in a verdant landscape. Photo by Jamie Purinton

All of this work culminated in a compact landscape that is the gateway to Mountain Top Arboretum’s 178-acre site. Greene Bee Greenhouse owners Briana and Eli Davis expertly advised and installed the plantings in Fall 2018 and Spring 2019. Staff Horticulturist Ryan Moore nurtures this new landscape as the continual reveal of foliage, flower, and seed attracts an array of birds, pollinators, and humans. In an age of extreme weather changes, this resilient landscape will weather the storms, so let it rain.  

About the Authors

Jamie Purinton has been a teacher, private practitioner, and writer in the field of landscape architecture for the last thirty-three years. She co-authored Landscape Narratives: Design Practices for Telling Stories and edited Voices of the Land. She considers herself a lifetime student of wildlife habitats and native plant communities and believes her role as a designer is to protect and enhance our natural resources. Her Hudson Valley based practice focuses on sustainable design, minimizing our impact on the land and making distinct and meaningful places.  For more information go to 

Marc Wolf joined Mountain Top Arboretum in 2016 as Director of Horticulture and became Executive Director in 2017. He received his BA from Williams College, is a graduate of New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and interned at Chanticleer Garden. Marc studied with the noted landscape architect Darrel Morrison and worked as his field assistant on projects at New York Botanical Garden, at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and for private clients. As a writer and performer working in theatre, film, and television, Marc received OBIE and National Endowment for the Arts Awards, among others. He enjoys hiking, skiing, fishing, and exploring the native plant communities of the Catskills, agreeing with the late, great poet Mary Oliver who wrote: “the song you heard singing in the leaf when you / were a child / is singing still.”