A Green Passion

By Remy Sisk

Photos by Tim Valentino

Tucked away on Old LaGrange Road in Oldham County sits one of the most beautiful treasures of our community. Yew Dell Botanical Gardens is a stunning oasis with a storied history and a promising future. Its roots date back to the 1940s, but if the past two decades have been any indication, the progress and growth are sure to continue.

Theodore and Martha Lee Klein acquired the 33 acres of land in 1941. Klein, a legendary plantsman, saw his passion realized on the land as he tirelessly developed it for 60 years. On the property, he built a private estate with a tobacco barn and put together a renowned commercial nursery with an extraordinary collection of rare and unusual plants.

“Up until just a couple weeks before he passed away in 1998, he was out here planting,” relates Executive Director Paul E. Cappiello. During his time in the gardens, Klein compiled over 1,000 specimens of trees and shrubs that, though beautiful, required a lot of work. “The property had sort of gotten away from him – he was 93 and trying to take care of acres and acres of gardens and nurseries,” Cappiello explains.

The land sat virtually untended following Klein’s death as the family mulled over what should be done with the property. It was eventually decided that it would be handed over for development; however, there remained those that saw the potential at Yew Dell and had other ideas. “Just a day or two before this was all going to go to development, a group formed and met with the family, who then agreed to give them a year to come up with the down payment to buy the property and save it,” Cappiello recounts. “There were literally bulldozers parked out near the front gates – it’s just one of those stories where the right people got together just in the nick of time.”

Cappiello came on in 2002 part-time, as did a half-time secretary, and that was the entire staff other than the volunteer board. At this point, the grounds were in disarray, but the second Saturday of every month saw volunteers venture out to the property to do what they could. Thanks to Klein’s legacy, several individuals and businesses regularly showed up to chip in. Slowly but surely, the Yew Dell the community loves now began to take shape.

“Once we opened, the question was, ‘What’s the model that keeps a place like this going?’ Our support basically comes from membership, donations, fundraising events, rentals, shop sales and plant sales and corporate sponsorship as well,” Cappiello maintains. “And then also volunteers, which is a huge component – we have one full-time gardener and two full-time apprentices and then about 300 volunteers over the course of a year.”

Without question, it took unequivocal passion to not only bring Yew Dell to life but then revive it after its leader passed away. There are always new things growing at Yew Dell, both in the ground and in business, such as the new event pavilion that’s been widely praised since its recent installation. Thanks to the perfect blend of passion, knowledge and a readiness to roll up one’s sleeves and get dirty, Yew Dell Botanical Gardens will only continue to dazzle visitors for years to come. VT

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens

6220 Old LaGrange Road