Allen Centennial Garden

Framed by emerging spring blooms at UW-Madison's Allen Centennial Garden, freshman Rachel Smaby enjoys the area's return to more seasonal temperatures during a break among the botanical exhibits.

JOHN HART -- State Journal

Every gardener counts the days to spring. At Allen Centennial Garden on the UW-Madison campus, they have been counting the plants, too.

As interns work on an online plant databank, which should be ready by mid-summer, the garden’s new director, Ben Futa, is looking at a schedule that includes therapy dogs, slow food, 3,000 new bulbs and an updated master plan.

A key point of that plan is that the garden should not grow beyond its 27 separate exhibit areas, but should mature. Education and public engagement will be a focus, in keeping with the hiring of an education coordinator, Elin Meliska.

The garden — it is singular — at Babcock and Observatory Drives may be the most accessible classroom on campus, with the most diverse syllabus. Even on a recent chilly Sunday, the walkers in the 2.5 acres surrounding the vintage 1896 Agriculture Dean’s House ranged from an old man and his dog to curious children to students from the nearby Lakeshore dormitories.

A visitor in the next week or so will be treated to a colorful result of a student project from last fall, when 3,000 Chionodoxa, Scilla, narcissus, hyacinth, and muscari bulbs were planted in the “English garden” area.

Futa, an Indiana native starting his second year as director, said that while several student interns and a new education coordinator are at work, there is a full schedule of events on tap for the garden this spring.

The garden, named after Oscar and Ethel Allen, who were prominent faculty, was dedicated in 1989, the 100th anniversary of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

Current visitors will find two new serene landscape design projects underway, both winners of a student team contest. April 27 is already booked solid for an “open-mike” night featuring horticulture-related events. There’s a Slow Food UW Cafe on May 4, and therapy dogs will host a meet-and-pet event, “Dogs on Call,” May 6.

Mid-summer should see completion of a unique online plant database, Futa said.

“It’s a world-class garden,” he noted, “with a wonderful group of volunteers. The community is craving and ready for these new programs.”

In February, an intern-planned event, “Luminous,” featured six luminary exhibits, bonfires and hot chocolate. It drew 3,000 visitors, when no more than 300 were expected.

“The bones of this garden are extremely strong,” Futa said. “We’re gearing up to an update of our master plan, re-evaluating everything.”

The garden is open daily from dawn to dusk. Parking is free at the Observatory Drive ramp and Tripp Circle after 4:30 p.m. Monday–Friday, and all day Saturday and Sunday.


Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the dates of the Slow Food UW Cafe and Dogs on Call events.

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