Turning a New Leaf

At Allen Centennial Gardens, director Ed Lyon is rejuvenating the landscape with new plants-and a new idea about how gardens fit into our busy lives.

AS A GRADUATE STUDENT, ED LYON MS’01 spent many hours toiling in and admiring CALS’ Allen Centennial Gardens. In fact, the 2.5-acre garden inspired his career. Now, after stints at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Madison’s Olbrich Botanical Gardens and Janesville’s Rotary Botanical Gardens, he’s come back home to direct activities at the popular Allen gardens. It’s a job that requires balancing the garden’s role as an educational resource with its wide appeal among alumni and the community.

What’s this lovely garden doing in the middle of the CALS campus?

Our primary mission is to be an outdoor classroom. A lot of different students use the gardens for different purposes. We have music students and art students come do projects here; it’s not just horticulture or landscape architecture students. We also strive to be an educational resource for the public and the whole horticultural industry.

What was your most immediate concern when you became director last summer?

Rejuvenation. Because the garden is 20 years old, an awful lot of the plant materials that were originally planted here are either overgrown or not the most appropriate plant materials any more. So probably the biggest things I’ve been doing since I got here are massive weeding, getting things back in control, cutting a lot of stuff out and then bringing in new plant materials that are more appropriate.

What do you mean by more appropriate?

Do you remember the big burning bush tree at the front of the house? Well, I took that out. It was too big and it blocked the house, plus burning bush is now on the list of invasive plant species. I don’t feel I can be responsible in running a public garden if I have plants in here that are on the invasives list. I took out some other overgrown plant materials nearby and then replaced it all with five different kinds of small-scale maples. These are more appropriate to the small-scale garden that most people have today.

What is your vision for the future of the gardens?

There is a huge change occurring in our industry right now, and most of my vision for where this garden is going to go over the next 20 years is based on this change. Our past audiences were baby boomers and older. They’re the home gardeners—they’re the ones that have English perennial borders; they are the ones doing ponds and streams. I’m on the tail end of that generation, and I’m typical of that. My entire yard—even right to curbside—is garden.

We must always have these kinds of places, where people can go simply for beauty, relaxation or solace.

This happened because the baby boomers raised their children and then in their 40s decided they wanted a hobby. They probably had an agrarian background or a mother or grandmother who had a vegetable garden. It was sort of this psychological connection to their past that made them start gardening. But that audience is disappearing. They’re downsizing their homes and moving into condos.

Who’s the new audience, then?

It’s the X and Y generations. These are the kids that moved out of the house before Mom and Dad got involved in home gardening. They don’t have that same attachment and recollection about gardening. They are probably both working, and so they don’t have as much free time. They want to spend their weekends doing things with their children and not maintaining an English perennial garden. We call them the do-it-for-me generation. They want somebody to come in and trim the hedges and mow the lawn so they can spend their quality time doing something else.

Can you attract these people to gardening?

I think you can. They are very interested in ecology and food issues. They are interested in the safety of their food and where it comes from. Farmers’ markets are huge. Organics and sustainability, those are big issues, too.

How will you address these interests at Allen?

Eventually, we want to have a home demonstration garden where we will do composting and have rain barrels. Maybe we’ll do worm castings. It’s all part of making the garden more organic and more Earth-friendly.

Are you starting to move in that direction?

Actually, we have two areas in the garden where we’re doing some experiments: the vegetable garden and the lawn. This year, we’re splitting both of those areas in two. One half is going to be fertilized with compost tea and the other will be done traditionally. We’re going to try this for a couple of years and then see if there’s something to these compost teas.

And what about food issues? Can the vegetable garden play a role there?

That’s the goal. We don’t want to just grow and demonstrate these plants—we want to use them.

When I was at Rotary Botanical Gardens, we did large displays involving heirlooms and ornamental edibles, as well as standard vegetable crops. When those vegetables were harvested, we held public tastings and festivals, and we also sent thousands of pounds of fresh produce to local food banks. Unfortunately, I do not have the labor force to do that here, but we are trying to connect with some other groups on campus to make use of the harvest.

This year, (food science instructor) Monica Theis helped us set up an arrangement with UW Housing’s catering unit, which will use our produce through the season. They will serve it at Frank’s Place, and they are planning some special events to feature the produce. So it’s a great partnership, because connecting with Housing and with Monica and her students gives us the labor and expertise we need to do this.

So you’re closing the loop. Is that an important part of the message?

The first reason this is important is because I was raised by farm-based parents who lived through the Depression and scarcity of food. So I don’t waste! But it is also important because these kinds of relationships allow us to expand our educational base and our worth to the community. This is just one small step in that goal.

What reaction do you get when you share this vision with your traditional patrons?

When I started describing my vision in talks, I got a number of people saying, ‘Oh, no, he’s going to move away from this being a beautiful garden.’ But that’s not it at all. There will always be areas of this garden that will be there for the beauty, the solace, the relaxation and the inspiration because that’s a very important part of a public garden.

I was at Chicago Botanic during 9/11, and on that day, they closed every public museum in Chicago. We stayed open because we were north of the city. I have never seen more people from more different cultures and backgrounds flood into a place than they did that day. And that’s when I really recognized we must always have these kinds of places where people can go simply for beauty, relaxation or solace. So that’s not something I’m going to take away. Beauty will always be part of what we do here. Even when we do home demonstration areas, we’ll always do things in an aesthetic way.