EAST LANSING — A seven-acre garden at Michigan State University is in a slightly different location than before but still emphasizes biodiversity and conservation.
Alan Prather, interim director of MSU’s W.J. Beal Botanical Garden, said the garden started in 1873 after professor William Beal urged the university about the need for a garden. Prather said it started in a small plot of land on the north end of West Circle Drive, next to the College of Music.
“It expanded on the southside toward the river. It’s about 7 acres,” he said. “There are about 2,200 specie in our collection, but there’s more that we don’t have in the catalog.”
150 years after its founding, the garden still stands as a living classroom for all to learn about the various plant and bug species.
How it’s the same
Since 1878, the plot of land has been instrumental for students of agricultural studies to gain a deeper knowledge of plants and insects. Beal started that with the seed experiment, later named the Beal Seed Experiment, to explore how long common plant seeds lie dormant before sprouting.
“The garden was established as a teaching garden for agriculture with different grasses for students to study in their field,” Prather said. “Only recently have we been cataloging insects in the garden.”
Today, administrators are restoring the Red Cedar River via the garden by removing invasive species and replacing them with native ones, mitigating erosion and allowing dead trees and plants to stay where they die to promote wildlife habitats, according to the garden’s webpage.
Prather said the garden was intentionally designed to maximize how people connect with each other, plants and nature.
“We’re working on a garden master plan this fall to reconsider our landscape and we don’t want to spread weeds downstream and we want to better use our space to be more sustainable,” he said.
How it’s different
At its inception, the Beal Garden sat on a floodplain of the Red Cedar River and was troublesome as it flooded often. Bill Hodgkins, an intern at the garden, said there used to be ponds, bogs and a floodstream to sustain the garden.
Staff in 1914 drained the two ponds and removed the bogs, then joined the streams beneath the soil to alleviate flooding.
Hodgkins and Prather said the garden is also bigger than its first location, known as Sleepy Hollow, which is two acres large and still managed by the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum.
“The second being happening in the 1950s when President (John A.) Hannah became the president and he wanted to shape the garden into a new direction,” Hodgkins said “It had relaxed its educational responsibility and he brought together designers and staff to plan out the new garden and into what we know as today.”
Changes by Hannah sustained the garden’s appearance, increased accessibility, facilitated maintenance and added in more educational opportunities, according to the garden’s history page.
Staff have encouraged people to use the garden to relax and reconnect with nature.
“The most remarkable thing is that we’re an oasis of tranquility in the north part of campus,” Prather said. “But we’re quiet and set aside a bit. People come to relax, unwind, get away from their cell phones and laptops.”
For Hodgkins, he said the abundance of friendly squirrels are more interesting as the garden used to be overrun with muskrats that attacked people and ate through the garden.
“One professor said ‘they chew up grass, flowers and ruined everything. I’ll take a student over a muskrat any day,'” he recalled.
A concrete wall was installed at the garden to deter the muskrats and now squirrels roam the grounds, not disturbing the plants and flowers within, Hodgkins said.
“The garden relies on teamwork and good citizenship and we count on people to come and enjoy the garden and don’t do things that make it difficult for us,” Prather said.
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This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Then and Now: 150 years of conservation at the Beal Botanical Garden
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