Tending a suburban oasis

Story and Photos by Rodney Wilson

The city of Highland Heights is situated just 8 miles from the Ohio River and, on the other side, the bustling city of Cincinnati. The northern Kentucky town isn’t exactly sleepy itself, with a plethora of interconnected neighborhoods, always-busy retail district, and the campus of Northern Kentucky University, one of the state’s fastest-growing public universities.

The site features two water gardens with a variety of pond-loving plants.

But there’s something of an oasis right off the four-lane highway US-27 in the form of the Lakeside Commons Educational Garden, a 3-acre site established in 1995 at the Campbell County Cooperative Extension, one of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment’s co-op extensions spread throughout the state. 

The garden is designed for tranquil enjoyment of the gardeners’ hard work, with a large urn fountain in the center.

The garden itself is a mixture of ornamentals, edibles, and landscape elements, all presented as a public park for the enjoyment of the community. The site also serves as an example garden and, as the name would imply, educational resource to help would-be gardeners.

The garden’s shed is decorated with a barn quilt created by volunteer master gardeners. A class on painting barn quilts may be scheduled later this year.

“That’s what the garden is meant for,” says Jason Vaughn, a horticulture assistant at the extension. “It’s meant to be kind of a display garden for ideas, and it provides a good outside classroom. If we’re doing a class on annuals, for instance, we can do the classic PowerPoint, but then we can come out and say, ‘Here are some zinnias. Here’s some celosias.’”

A wide assortment of roses in the rose garden.

And while the brick building and paid workers inside suggest a kind of “officialism,” the garden itself is the work of dedicated volunteers, without whom the space would never exist.

“When you get in the park back there, the city actually owns that. We rent it from the city, and then money to take care of it comes from the extension office. But all the actual work in the gardens is done by a group of master gardener volunteers,” says Vaughn. “We have anywhere from 15-25 that come every Friday from 9 a.m.-noon, and they do all the planting, watering, and weeding. That’s the only way we’re able to do it.”

Edibles grown in the vegetable garden are donated to a local non-profit dedicated to feeding hungry residents in the area.

Different volunteers maintain different parts of the garden, with one man attending to the two water gardens while another cares for the plants in the rose garden. And a group of master gardeners keeps an extensive vegetable garden, with cold frames, hoop houses and compost bins to keep the food growing.   

The Monarch Waystation holds a variety of plants that attract the orange butterflies as they trek south to Mexico.

“We also have a vegetable garden over here that the master gardeners take care of, then we donate the produce we get to the Henry Hosea House downtown,” says Vaughn, referring to the Newport-based outreach program that feeds the area’s underserved. He points to stalks emerging from the raised beds – “Plenty of broccoli, tomatoes, potatoes.”

Called the “petal beds” because of a tulip shape, these beds feature annuals, as well as cold-hardy elephant ears (Colocasia).

In addition to the area’s residents, butterflies are invited to enjoy the garden, with a garden meant to provide traveling monarchs with much-needed sustenance via a variety of perennials. “One of the girls actually tags them, so, if they find one down in Mexico, they’ll send you an email to tell you they made it,” says Vaughn. “We’re also clearing out an area for a butterfly house that will keep them enclosed. We’ll have several different species that we can let people take a look at.”

A iris patch splashes color across the hillside.

So next time you’re in northern Kentucky and in need of some gardening ideas or just a few minutes reprieve from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, head to the Campbell County Cooperative Extension’s Lakeside Commons Educational Garden … you deserve to stop and smell the flowers.



Plant of the Week 

Campbell County Cooperative Extension horticultural assistant Jason Vaughn has a passion for plants that he’s eager to share. He teaches a variety of gardening classes and reaches out via social media to spread the love. “I do a Lakeside Commons Educational Garden plant of the week,” he says, “It’s something that’s looking good in the garden, and I give a little information on how to get it into your garden – what it likes, what it doesn’t like.” Head to the extension’s Facebook page to see what’s growing this week.

Scroll to Top