.C. State students looking for a standard horticuture course might have been in for a bit of a green surprise last semester.
For a lucky few, a special topics course listed as Global Gardens (HS 495W), turned out to be no less than lecturer Tracy Traer’s magic carpet ride through gardens of delight and contemplation to a survey of civilization as we know it.
Throw in an optional trip to study English gardens and you have a course memories are made of.
That’s because Traer, of the College of Agriculture and Life Science’s Horticultural Sciences Department, also is a professional landscape designer and world traveler who understands landscape gardens. She has worked for years to translate her understanding to universal concepts students can fold into their budding horticultural careers.
“Gardens originally were planted to satisfy the need for food, of course, but changed and molded to the idiosyncrasies of social changes and institutions,” Traer says. “The course’s purpose was to explore evolutions of form, features and functions, although what we love about gardens transcends time and culture.”
"...what we love about gardens transcends time and culture." Tracy Traer
Traer illustrated that transcendence in several ways, not the least of which is through the arsenal of more than 45,000 slides from which she drew 140 a week to illustrate her lectures.
Her Global Gardens classes studied garden evolution of ancient irrigated desert cultures from Sumeria and Babylon through Egypt, to gardens constructed by Greek philosophers and Roman engineers. Then she zoomed to the extremely influential Moors, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The tour included gardens influenced by the Chinese and by Buddhism, Confucianism and Shintoism, then swung across the globe to include the roving, plant-snatching Victorian English and the later gardens of the bleak Industrial Age. Her classes also considered Southeast Asia, Russia and Germany in the early to mid-20th century. And finally, they came home to American gardens.
“We concentrated on gardens of cultures other than our own because most of garden history occurred before our time as a dominant culture,” she says.
For their final projects, students chose a garden from any period then incorporated into their project the influences of historical time, geography and topography, climate and ecology, culture and social beliefs, and economic and political systems. To show their projects, they staged a definitive poster session outdoors near Talley Student Center on a beautiful spring day.
Traer was herself a graduate student of the late J.C. Raulston, the N.C. State professor revered for developing the arboretum that now bears his name. After teaching environmentally responsive planting design in landscape horticulture and architecture programs since 1985, Traer retires this year from university lecturing.
Traer, a Georgia native, came to architectural landscaping in a somewhat roundabout way.
She was an activist, she says, during her student years at Oglethorpe University, to which she transferred in disappointment after learning that women weren’t allowed to major in veterinary medicine at the University of Georgia.
She had still not given up on that vet school dream, even after graduating cum laude in economics from Oglethorpe and working as distribution manager for Piper Aircraft Corp. At Virginia’s Blue Ridge Community College she earned certification as a veterinary technician. However, she never got her hoped-for doctorate in veterinary medicine: When she moved with her husband to Raleigh in 1975, N.C. State did not yet have its College of Veterinary Medicine.
Frustrated, she opted for another path. “N.C. State’s School [now College] of Design offered a degree in landscape architecture, and I was very interested in seeing that Raleigh developed in ways that were more environmentally sensitive than Atlanta did,” she says.
One thing she found in Raleigh was that time wears down more than the bricks in a garden walk.
“When I attended graduation exercises in 1993 to receive the Outstanding Teacher Award, I observed with satisfaction that a majority of the recipients of the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine were women. Our activism and the passing of 30 years had indeed changed the norm,” she notes.
Traer met J.C. Raulston not long after she arrived in Raleigh.
“Although he was not a professor in landscape architecture, he became our major professor, and, through his mentorship and influence, four of his five grad students from that period became teachers in university landscape and horticulture programs,” she says.
One of Traer’s special projects for Raulston was the initial topographic survey of the Unit IV Research Farm, which provided the basis for the Fielding Scarborough master plan that helped steer the arboretum’s development for more than 15 years. Her project involved the master plan for the N.C. Botanical Garden, which guided its development until recently.
When IBM transferred her husband to England, she joined him to learn all about European gardens.
“I studied English garden design, plants and development practices,” she says. “My studies expanded to Europe, Scandinavia, India, Egypt, North Africa and Greece.”
To those travels, she later added study leaves to England and Southeast Asia, as well as visits to Costa Rica and Russia in the 1990s.
When she returned to Raleigh in 1981, she was invited to apply for a nine-month teaching position in N.C. State’s Horticultural Science Department.
“And here I am still, all these years later,” she says.
She developed the cold-damage recovery plan for N.C. State’s campus and initiated planted gardens around Kilgore and Scott halls on main campus. These gardens evolved into teaching labs, demonstrating alternatives to traditional planting design.
“I count as one of my greatest successes that we have at least seven species of birds now nesting around Kilgore Hall,” she says.
She might have added as successes her slide collection and hundreds of practicing landscape architects she has taught.
Even in retirement, Traer hopes to offer her course annually through the college’s horticultural sciences department or N.C. State’s Multidisciplinary Studies program.
“I plan eventually to offer it as a Web course,” she says, “with possible follow-up trips to a number of the gardens we study.”