The pandemic introduced new challenges for the Allen Centennial Garden, causing the staff to shift to more sustainable and low-maintenance practices, according to the garden’s Horticulture Director Josh Steger.
These practices involve growing lawn alternatives, cutting back on water consumption and incorporating more native plants, Steger said. This shift in focus was caused by the pandemic, which introduced new obstacles to the garden.
“The thinking that the pandemic has inspired about the future has really encouraged us to think about running our garden in a much more sustainable way, both for the sake of easier labor and saving our resources and conserving what we can,” Allen Centennial Garden Horticulture Apprentice Al Valuch said.
When the pandemic arrived, the garden lost its volunteers and interns. This left three full-time staff members to manage the nearly two-acre garden, Valuch said.
Steger said he framed the garden around low-maintenance plants that required minimal watering this year.
“I wasn’t sure what COVID was going to be like this season because last year we struggled with having very few people,” Steger said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to keep up if it’s like this next year, like how I’m going to keep up with watering and maintaining everything.’”
One way Steger reduced the demand for maintenance was by experimenting with lawn alternatives, like the no-mow lawn in the Conifer Garden. The lawn is made up of different types of fescue, which grows tall and lays down on the ground.
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The no-mow lawn doesn’t require fertilizer, and the garden mows the lawn three times per year. It also provides erosion control and protection for the conifers, Steger said.
The garden focused on cutting back water consumption by letting its traditional lawns grow longer. Steger said this technique allowed the turf to shade its own roots, which caused it to stay green longer and require less water.
Instead of using regular mulch, Steger said he used leaf mulch to keep moisture in the soil. In addition to leaf mulch, he planted drought-tolerant plants to reduce water usage.
Another strategy Steger implemented to reduce water consumption was growing more native plants. Most native plants don’t need additional watering, Valuch said.
Valuch said the garden staff didn’t need to water the prairie garden, a native plant display installed completely from seed, at all this summer. In the fall, the prairie garden grows Goldenrod and Aster, which are bright purple and yellow flowers, Steger said.
Valuch said the tapestry lawn, which the staff established during the pandemic, didn’t need watering either. The tapestry lawn, located under the Larch, is a multicolored assortment of low-growing plants for visitors to walk on.
Sowing native plants from seed also saves time for the garden’s staff and volunteers. Instead of putting energy into plants that might not survive, directly sowing allows seeds to grow on their own, Steger said.
Some visitors oppose the native displays, preferring a more formal garden setting, Valuch said.
“The trouble with starting from seed is you really need to take your time and be really patient and not disturb the soil bed as much as you can,” Valuch said. “You can’t pull weeds out. So things look really weedy for a while, and that definitely bothers some people.”
While many people think native plants are wild, messy and out of control, combining these plants strategically makes for a beautiful display, Steger said.
Another benefit of native plants is the reduced amount of plastic waste from the garden. Pre-established annual and tropical plants come in plastic pots and don’t perform well when planted by seed. The Allen Centennial Garden can plant native vegetation from seed, Steger said, which doesn’t require as much plastic to plant.
The garden’s new projects don’t always work out, though. Over the summer, Steger attempted to install a meadow from seed. But after smothering the ground to prevent weeds, he said the site was still full of them.
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Despite this, Steger feels being transparent about the garden’s failures is important. Some gardens seem unrealistic for the average person, but he modeled the Allen Centennial Garden off of a practical home garden.
“With our garden, we want it to be attainable for everybody and we want to show our strengths and our weaknesses and our failures,” Steger said.
Aside from its focus on reducing maintenance requirements, the garden’s focus has shifted to community involvement in recent years, Valuch said. Programs like the garden’s weekly plant walks and Plant Adoption Day drew in visitors, and native plant displays attracted classes of students.
The Allen Centennial Garden continued to see an influx of student volunteers and visitors as regulations surrounding the pandemic loosened, Steger said. This shift was a success for the garden.
Valuch said the garden used to feel closed off and intimidating to visitors — some students didn’t think they could enter the grounds. That’s not the case anymore.
Recently, Steger has found students exploring the garden, eating lunch and even taking naps on the lawns. The garden aims for students to connect with the plants in the garden and to simply enjoy the space, Steger said.
“People used to call it ‘the hidden jewel,'” Steger said. “And I don’t like that because I don’t want to be the hidden jewel on campus. I want to be like, ‘Yeah, Allen Centennial Garden, I know where that is.'”