MADISON, Wis. – It’s 3:15 p.m. Sept. 14 and I’m standing outside the entrance to Allen Centennial Garden talking with University of Wisconsin-Madison students about how to choose houseplants for their dorm rooms.

Plant Adoption Day – a new outreach event hosted by the garden – opened just 15 minutes ago. Already hundreds of students are waiting, standing around the block to adopt a new plant. By 4:30 p.m. we’ve run out of inventory. Some 1,225 plants found homes with students — in just 90 minutes. Bottom line the inaugural Plant Adoption Day was a resounding success.

That’s just one example of everyday activities at Allen Centennial Garden. We foster and empower a community of passionate plant lovers on-campus.

Nestled in the Lakeshore neighborhood of campus, the garden – celebrating its 30th season in 2019 – is a 2-acre outdoor classroom. Managed by a team of four full-time staff and student interns, it’s the crown jewel of the UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences horticultural department.

A living museum, the garden has always supported academic programs through plant collections. Each year hundreds of students study plant morphology as well as identification, entomology, plant physiology and landscape architecture. Hands-on horticultural internships are offered.

We’ve begun to expand our role in recent years. When I arrived in May 2015 as the new director of the garden, I noticed we had a challenge of relevance. I often heard us described as a “hidden gem” or “best-kept-secret.” What people really meant was, “You’re wonderful but no one knows – or cares – you exist.”

We’re always open. But students in particular weren’t visiting, even with 22 dorms and thousands of students just outside our gates. That needed to change. We needed to become more relevant to our campus community. But why bother?

Plant blindness

serious issue

Now more than ever there’s a need to connect people with the plant world. American botanists James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler have written about “plant blindness.” They define it as “the inability to recognize or notice the plants in one’s environment, leading to failure to appreciate the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.”

Plant blindness is a serious issue. Future generations need to care and become involved in managing and stewarding natural resources. That’s already important to the agricultural community.

We saw the immense potential in inviting students to become aware, and to appreciate and embrace the natural world. They overwhelmingly answered the invitation.

We began to test in fall 2015 a series of student-designed outreach programs. We launched internships in marketing, programming, sustainability and leadership. And we partnered with student organizations to expand our bandwidth — and to do more with less. We saw more than 1,500 students engage with the garden that fall.

Fast forward to 2018. Plant Adoption Day is just one event on a full calendar. Our work to better engage the community is beginning to pay. This past year 158 programs welcomed more than 13,000 individuals. Of those programs 70 percent were presented with a campus or community partner. Nearly all the events were intended to reduce barriers between people and plants.

Students now want to work with the garden. We’ve received a staggering number of intern applications for 2019 – 102. That’s far more than the typical five to 10 received in previous years.

As a “growing” community and student center, we operate from an important stage. The garden serves more than 65,000 students, staff and faculty – plus neighbors in Madison and throughout Wisconsin. A recently completed update of the long-range landscape master plan charts a course for the coming decade. It positions Allen Centennial Garden – and the power of plants – as a crucial element in the fabric of the campus and community. Refreshed and renovated gardens will allow us to showcase and talk about plants in new ways.

Allen Centennial Garden is at the heart of campus life, infusing the power of plants into the fabric of everyday life. We’re inspiring future generations to care about plants. We’re encouraging them to pursue professions that nurture, support and embrace nature. We believe gardens can – and will – save the world.

We welcome all to join us in our work. We need mentors and content experts who can share their expertise and co-create programs. Together we can curate an enthralling botanical gateway, inviting learners of all ages to discover what UW’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences offers our state, our country and our planet.

Benjamin Futa joined Allen Centennial Garden as its director in 2015. He has expanded the role of the garden on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.