Laura Zehr, left, a senior at Illinois State University majoring in biological education, plans to bring her experience working as an Arboretum intern into the classroom. Zehr, who in four years has learned the complicated grid layout system for placing flowers at the Miles C Hartley Selections Garden, helps manage other student workers. Also helping plant impatiens is Illinois student Lynette Waldbeser.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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For half the year, the UI's 57-acre Arboretum is one of the area's best places to take a relaxing walk off the beaten path.
For the other half, when a color-burst of more than 1,000 varieties of flowering annuals are blooming at the Miles C Hartley Selections Garden, it may be the very best.
"Every year I see more and more people coming out here just to walk around and relax," said Diane Anderson, a research and education specialist and the Arboretum's grounds supervisor.
But the Arboretum hasn't always been a community destination.
Part of an original vision of university founders that included flowering gardens, the Arboretum has flourished only in the last 25 years, thanks to alumni donations and an unwavering commitment to provide natural-setting research opportunities for students.
"Coming out here allows my students to focus on details they might not pick up so easily from a classroom-only setting," said Jim Schmidt, a professor of crop sciences who teaches a plant-identification course.
Schmidt's class is one of many, from across a variety of disciplines, which uses the area for classroom work.
"I use this as an outdoor laboratory," he said. "The students seem to really enjoy coming out here."
The Arboretum's transformation started with a donation from the Hartley family, made in the name of the longtime faculty member and alumnus. That led in 1994 to the dedication of the multi-leveled trial garden that is framed with a concrete walkway. In 1997, two nearby ponds were added through a donation from the Illinois Land Improvement Contractors Association.
Over the next two decades the Arboretum would take on creeping jenny-like characteristics, extending its horticultural reach from all sides of the Hartley garden. Additions included the 15,000-square-foot Master Gardeners' Idea Garden; Japan House, with its cherry trees and dry and tea gardens; a hosta garden; and the Roseanne Noel Welcome Garden. (Idea and Japan House gardeners will be featured in upcoming summer editions of Inside Illinois).
Anderson describes the continuing expansion of the facility as an effort similar to connecting far-flung rooms of a house.
While the connecting isn't nearly complete (for example, planners continue to seek ways to more closely connect the university's Pollinatarium, on the Arboretum's southernmost border, to the rest of the complex), the work continues moving forward.
Arboretum visitors this year will notice big changes around the ponds between Hartley and Japan House. Besides the Frank W. Kari walkway addition last year, the ponds had sat undeveloped since their formation.
Workers already have added some native plantings around both ponds, creating a soon-to-be thick green ring around each bank and marking the first phase of the wetland area's "native and natural" motif. The pipes and open holes that were the indicators of progress last summer have been buried and filled and the area is again easily accessible.
Anderson said the new plantings, like the other areas of the Arboretum, will include educational signs.
"We're working with the goal of creating some diversity around the ponds," Anderson said. "We're still deciding exactly what is going to go in. There are many plant species found in wet and dry mesic prairies, sedge meadows and emergent water areas that would be appropriate for the pond plantings."
She said plants in the water-intensive area will soon flourish and the development will add another valuable aesthetic and educational layer.
"These next two summers are going to be big summers for us," she said. "We're going to be adding a lot of things, and once we get it rolling it's going to go pretty fast. It's literally going to change the entire landscape."
There also are plans to develop one area east of the pond specifically for weddings and events, which are held at the Arboretum for a fee that supplements endowment and donation funding.
Anderson said several upgrades also are being added to the Arboretum this year, including new signs and benches and latticework replacement.
She said while the Hartley trial garden continues to be a popular walking space, it also serves a purpose as one of the largest research-based garden presentations in the Midwest.
Anderson, the trial manager, and Schmidt spend the off-season searching for new varieties of flowering annuals, which they receive at no charge from seed and plant companies in exchange for evaluation. At the end of the season, the growing results are sent back to the company and best-performing varieties are posted on the Arboretum's website.
Anderson and Schmidt find inspiration from perusing the catalogs and by attending an annual greenhouse tour in California.
"We see more varieties and choices than you could believe," she said. "It's a great learning opportunity. (Jim) is really good at keeping up with what's new, and we choose plants we know will perform well here."
Once the seeds, cuttings and plugs arrive in Urbana, they are prepared for planting at the ornamental landscape research farm, located just south of the garden.
Seeds are usually received by February, un-rooted cuttings by March and plugs by April.
"That gives us enough time to get roots growing on them," Anderson said of the cuttings and plugs. "We've got three or four weeks to size them up to garden-ready size."
Anderson will work out a plat plan of the garden, using a grid map and numerical system to ensure the correct plants are planted in the correct beds. She places similar varieties together, giving visitors a wide array to view and researchers a side-by-side comparison. Meanwhile, Schmidt plans design areas to simulate home garden landscape beds.
The plants are removed after autumn's frost has killed them, then the beds are prepared in late spring. More than 10,000 plants are added by a college-age staff that numbers fewer than a half-dozen.
"Cleaning the beds in the fall takes three weeks of cold, mucky work," Anderson said. "We have to pull out everything from last year and it's usually rainy and miserable."
She said the biggest challenge is ensuring all of the plants have been placed in their correct locations and correctly labeled.
"We've adopted a stringent system to avoid any mistakes," she said. "It's a great opportunity to see everything together. If a container doesn't have a label, we have to throw it away. We can't just guess exactly what it is because there are so many similar varieties."
She compared the final presentation at Hartley to viewing swatches in a paint store to determine the color of a room.
Schmidt said while the education component is the overriding goal, "I'm also interested in making it look really good."
Despite the precautions, mistakes occasionally happen.
"Every once in a while we'll plant something in the wrong place, and it's something that doesn't get noticed until you get to the end and realize that something's out of place," said Laura Zehr, a senior at Illinois State University majoring in biological education.
"If you don't follow that plan then you have to go back and redo everything."
Zehr, who learned of the garden internship position three years ago through a cousin who is a horticulture major at the UI, said the work has been valuable and rewarding. One of the things she has learned is the importance of good organization.
"I've worked several horticultural jobs because I like being outside," she said. "But I think (working here) has helped me draw a lot of experience that I can bring back to my classroom."
Anderson said the number of student applicants with a horticulture background has increased in recent years, which has made the process run more smoothly.
She said she has proudly watched Zehr, who manages other student workers and is keenly aware of the growing and planting system, develop into a leader.
"It's hard to keep it running smoothly because of the turnover of the students," she said. "I've had a lot of different kids go through here. When they go it's like my kid is leaving home."