Rethinking the Gateway Garden
A new exuberance brightens an iconic Ann Arbor landscape.
by Bob & Jorja Feldman
From the August, 2019 issue
Our Observer "Outside" column often takes us to the U-M's Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Last summer we noticed that Gateway Garden, the iconic front of Matthaei's display gardens, looked newly exuberant. The freshness grabbed our interest, so we asked what was up.
As we suspected, there have been some changes at Matthaei, starting with the management structure. Last year, Doug Conley was hired for the newly created position of garden coordinator, overseeing all of the display gardens at both Nichols Arboretum and Matthaei (except for the bonsai and children's gardens) with the help of two newly hired horticultural technicians.
One of the techs, Patti Dale, is assigned to the Arb's peony garden; perhaps inevitably, she's now known as "Peony Patti." Conley assigned the other, Kayla Wanous, to Gateway. A host of volunteers and summer interns also work in the display gardens under Conley's jurisdiction.
Last October, Conley asked Wanous to come up with several different designs for Gateway's beds of annual plants. These were then narrowed down to two designs, each to be used twice in the four beds devoted to annuals. Wanous searched through the garden's library of seed catalogs for flowers spanning the colors of the rainbow, an important feature of the designs.
Gateway's full name--the Gateway Garden of New World Plants--was a substantial limiter, since many annuals have a European or Asian origin. And her choices had to fit into the overall designs with appropriate color coordination and plant heights. But the biggest hurdle was to mix plant varieties. "It was a challenge," Wanous admits, "to not use all petunias."
Wanous is a seasonal employee, so before she left in November she gave Conley a list of the species she'd selected and the number of each she'd need--about 1,000 plants in all. Staff grew about 400 of them from seed and ordered the rest in plug form. When Wanous returned this spring, her plants were waiting in the greenhouse.
Five volunteers joined Wanous at the end of
April to begin the garden's spring cleanup. There was weeding to be done, debris to be cleaned up, and last year's perennial growth to be cut back and removed.
From then on, weather permitting, the volunteers showed up every Wednesday morning. They bring a wealth of experience, and they all work exclusively at Gateway. (Other display gardens have their own dedicated volunteers.)
For the first time, Conley has appointed captains to the volunteer teams. Gateway's is headed by Wendy Fanson, who came here after two decades volunteering at Matthaei's perennial garden, because she felt she was needed at Gateway. (Aside from the annual beds Wanous was redesigning, almost all of Gateway is planted in perennials.)
Conley says that when he asked Fanson why she began volunteering, she said that at the time she was raising four children and felt the need to "get to be with adults." Now, she says, "If I garden here, a lot of people get to see and enjoy it."
"It's a peaceful place to work," says Cynthia Baird, who joined the Wednesday group ten years ago. "I learn a lot." Her friend Linda Hintz, who joined at the same time, commented on how seriously she takes the volunteer commitment. Mary Nolff, with five years at Gateway, also likes the learning experience. Al Metzger, another ten-year volunteer, adds, "I see a lot of smiles."
The student interns bring their own brand of energy and enthusiasm. Four of them are assigned to Gateway this summer: Lauren Payne, Lily Johns, Ava Chamberlain, and Sarah Gizzi. Also helping out is environmental engineering student Harry Suchyta, who's been working at the garden to acquire field knowledge for a study on potential uses for urine-derived fertilizer.
Work progressed slowly during the very wet spring. The team finally started planting the new annuals at the end of May, under a gentle rain. It was late June before they turned most of their attention to the circular bed in the center of the garden, cutting down the spring daffodils (the one exception to the New World requirement) and starting to rejuvenate the sweeping beds of perennials.
The perennials originally nestled next to one another in complementary fashion, but over the years the plants wandered. The gardeners are now working to tighten the boundaries, creating open spaces that are temporarily planted with annuals. The long-term plan is to add more perennials that will bloom sequentially with those already there.
Completing the garden's geometry, the outermost ring of beds is populated by very tall herbaceous perennials. These wildflowers have been left to establish their own patterns. The team's assignment this year is to maintain and control them.The outermost ring is front-anchored by very small low beds, which are currently planted in annuals.
The new management, staff, and attention have the gardens looking perkier and brighter. In addition to the planting changes, after his arrival last year Conley changed the irrigation schedule from six days a week to twice a week for a longer period of time. The positive effect was quick and dramatic. The new schedule, he explains, "gives the plants what they need when they need it."
Visitors to Matthaei can see the flowers, but the people who plant and maintain them are generally invisible. Meeting them and witnessing their efforts enhanced our appreciation of what we see at Gateway and the other display gardens.
To our eyes, the plants at Gateway already are bigger and brighter and bloomier. The garden is designed to peak sometime in mid-to-late summer. Work such as the center bed rejuvenation is an ongoing multiyear project.
We expect Gateway to keep getting better and better. But why wait to go? This beautiful public garden is here for us today, and for all our tomorrows.
Matthaei is open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. seven days a week until Labor Day. Because the display gardens are a popular wedding venue, some portions may close temporarily. Admission is free, but there is a charge to park.
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