Good Life

The Arboretum at Penn State’s event coordinator shares favorite spots in the garden, wedding memories

The Arboretum at Penn State is a popular spot for weddings, with 39 held there last year.
The Arboretum at Penn State is a popular spot for weddings, with 39 held there last year. Centre Daily Times, file

Do you hear that? Those are wedding bells — or the distant chimes of summer — or an airplane.

Just to be on the safe side, it’s worth asking Kate Reeder, event and marketing coordinator at The Arboretum at Penn State.

Reeder is the point person between the arboretum and the wedding ceremonies, family reunions and business functions that come calling.

In preparation for the arboretum’s busiest time of the year, Reeder talks more about the mechanics behind celebrating one of the biggest days of your life against a botanical backdrop.

Q: Summer is coming. Is that typically a very busy time of the year for you guys?

A: Yes, summer is The Arboretum at Penn State’s peak season for visitation by families and tourists and the time of year when most rental events occur. Our Childhood’s Gate Children’s Garden, which depicts the major landforms, native plants and wildlife of central Pennsylvania, is a favorite destination for children and their parents and other relatives, day care groups and, in early summer, schools, including home-school groups. Rental events, which include weddings, conference receptions and both university and private gatherings, bring 5,000 to 6,000 attendees into the arboretum during the summer.

Q: Do you get a lot of casual foot traffic during the summer or is it mostly pre-scheduled events?

A: Yes, we do get a lot of casual foot traffic during the summer. There are scheduled activities in the children’s garden and scheduled group visits and tours, but many people on campus and in the community come frequently to see what has changed from week to week (even day to day) in the gardens. Some visitors, many of whom are alumni, return every year to see how the gardens have grown. We estimate that the number of casual visitors has tripled since the children’s garden opened in July 2014. Especially noteworthy is that more families are driving here from surrounding communities, including Altoona, Lewistown, Lock Haven and Williamsport.

We anticipate that foot traffic will increase significantly this summer because we are installing a new attraction — “Sculptures in Steel,” a solo exhibition by Robert Anderson. Anderson’s inflated steel sculptures, which include tall, red stems, blue chairs and bright orange seed pods, will be positioned for best effect for visitors strolling through the various gardens. The public opening of this exhibition in on June 4 from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m., and the sculptures will remain on display through Oct. 23.

There is one large community event that draws several thousand people in one evening every June — Music in the Gardens, presented by the Penn State School of Music and Music at Penn’s Woods. This is a highlight of the summer for both music- and garden-lovers. This year it is being held on June 8 (rain date: June 9). Other major community events are the annual Pumpkin Festival in mid-October and Winter Celebration in early December.

Q: Where is your favorite spot in the arboretum?

A: Oh, that question is so difficult to answer because the answer depends on the time of year. In April, the Joan Milius Smith Esplanade is my favorite spot because approximately 27,000 tulips come into bloom. Then in late May, my favorite time and place to be is in the Rose and Fragrance Garden, just after a gentle rain has fallen, and the droplets are glistening on the lush blooms of the tree peonies. They are so beautiful they bring tears to my eyes. For most of the summer, my favorite spot and time of day is the Overlook Pavilion at sunset — one can gaze at the iconic red elm in the field just past the pavilion and watch the sky turn gold and pink, and sometimes orange, behind it. There are spots that are special throughout the gardens in each season, but these three are probably my favorites because they help me to appreciate the renewed hope and beauty of spring and the splendor of a summer evening.

Q: How many weddings would you say are hosted there each year?

A: The number of weddings has increased each year since the gardens opened in the fall of 2009. In the first summer season there were approximately nine weddings and last year there were about 39. Of course, there is a limit to how many weddings can be held in the gardens on weekends from mid-May until the end of September, which is our active season, but some of these are small gatherings which can occur in the small garden spaces so there can be two weddings on one day at different times and in different locations. Some brides and grooms are flexible and reserve venues on Fridays or Sundays if the Saturdays have been filled.

Q: Are many of the betrothed couples PSU alumni or do you get a broad variety of folks?

A: There is a growing number of residents from surrounding communities who are expressing interest in renting a venue in the arboretum, but I estimate that 88 to 90 percent of the wedding clients are alumni because they often tell me either that they went to Penn State and later decided to get married at the alma mater they love, or they became engaged while at Penn State and knew that they wanted to return to be married on campus. It is not unusual for couples to tell me that the arboretum is where the groom-to-be proposed.

Q: How involved do you get in the planning of each of these events?

A: As the rental event coordinator, I explain the arboretum’s event protocols and garden rules and provide suggestions about how to stage the event, whether it is a conference dinner, staff retreat, department reception or wedding. My recommendations include how to adjust the setup and decor (furniture, placement of chairs, flowers, etc.) if inclement weather should arise. I also am very involved in finalizing the itinerary so that rental clients allow sufficient time for setup and tear-down to occur before and after the event itself within the time period that they have rented the venue. In the case of large events, whether they are being hosted by the arboretum or a university partner, I coordinate parking and security. For all events, I am responsible for explaining the university’s policies pertaining to risk management, entertainment contracts, parking and catering. Because I have monitored many weddings, a bridal couple will sometimes ask such things as whether I recommend they rent a microphone and sound system for the outdoor setting, which approach is the best for the processional and how past clients have chosen to provide ceremonial music or decorate the venue.

Q: The arboretum has so many different areas to choose from, ranging from the rose and fragrance garden to the event lawn. Is there one that tends to be more popular than others when it comes to weddings?

A: Between 75 and 80 percent of the wedding ceremonies are held at the Overlook Pavilion, which offers amenities that are unique among the venues, such as a canopied event terrace and sweeping views toward the Bald Eagle Ridge to the northwest and across the event lawn toward the fountain and campus to the southeast. In addition, it is close to the parking lot and restroom facilities and, because it is semi-enclosed, it is more private than the open lawn areas.

Q: Would you qualify any of those spaces as hidden gems — areas that people wouldn’t typically think of for a wedding or event but should?

A: During the first couple of years, we realized that there were small garden spaces that were hidden gems — ones where a group of 25 or so could gather for a private wedding ceremony rather than rent one of the large sites — and we added them to our list of venues. These are the Rose Garden Bower and Oasis Garden Terrace. I would say that the majority of clients consider all of the venues and most choose the Overlook Pavilion if they need to seat 100 or more guests. The maximum at the pavilion is approximately 220.

Q: Has there been one event in particular that has stood out in terms of how creatively someone has used the space?

A: I would have to say that the most creative event was one at which a bride and groom chose to imitate some of the customs of an ancient Roman wedding ritual. The bride had received a degree in Roman history. They rented the North (Conservatory) Terrace, which is a paved area, approximately 40-by-80 feet, surrounded by tropical and semi-tropical plantings, and provided an arch to serve as the focal point. They wore garments that resembled the attire that would have been worn by a Roman soldier and his bride and had props, such as a sword for the groom. According to their research about the era they were imitating, it was the custom for the groom to escort his bride from her home, walking through the streets of Rome, to the place where the wedding vows would be exchanged. This couple imitated that custom by meeting each other along Bigler Road and walking across the wide lawn and up the slope to the fountain, where they entered the walled gardens and turned into the “courtyard” represented by the North Terrace. A Roman march — broadcast on a portable sound system — was used as the processional music.

Q: What’s your favorite summertime activity in or outside of the arboretum?

A: My favorite summertime activity is strolling through the gardens in the evening and enjoying the variety of plant textures, foliage, scents and blooms and the many ways that visitors appreciate the gardens. Some are relaxed and happy as they take pictures or talk quietly with their companions, and others are enthusiastic, such as young children hurrying to visit the children’s garden or gardeners talking excitedly with their friends as they study the label of a plant that is new to them.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready