Thursday, May 28, 2009

Developing prairie gardens to beautify, educate, inspire at U of I College of Veterinary Medicine

Developing prairie gardens to beautify, educate, inspire at U of I College of Veterinary Medicine

[Details about volunteering to help with the project here:]

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Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, most of the land now occupied by the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois was blanketed in tallgrass prairie. This now nearly vanished ecosystem was characterized by an astonishingly rich plant community, a mosaic composed of some 300 species of grasses and flowers.

As the University developed, the native flora that had occupied the land between buildings and sidewalks and parking lots was replaced with lawns comprising just a few species of nonnative turf grass, in keeping with the values of the times. In some places these lawns continue to serve important functions for people, as Frisbee throwers, sunbathers, and tailgaters can all attest. But much of turf grass on campus is maintained for reasons that can be fairly summed up in the observation “that’s just how it’s always been done.”

Would it benefit people on campus and in the wider community to displace some of that unused lawn and restore there plants native to the tallgrass prairie?

Kerry Helms thinks so. He is coordinator of graphic design for the U of I College of Veterinary Medicine and a member of the College’s Orange, Blue and Green Committee, which promotes a variety of environmental efforts. [Photo: Left to right, Jamie Ellis, Kerry Helms, and Joe Kunkel point out where volunteers will help replace lawn with native prairie plants in front of the Vet Med Basic Sciences Building on June 6th.] So does Joe Kunkel, another member of the committee who is also director of facilities at Vet Med. Together and in collaboration with Jamie Ellis, board president of the local group, Grand Prairie Friends, they have been working on an initiative to do just that.

Their project is to install two perennial gardens composed entirely of native prairie plants near the front of the Veterinary Medicine Basic Sciences Building off of South Lincoln Avenue in Urbana. One of these gardens will occupy the island that creates the traffic turnaround in front of the building, while the other will surround the large metal sculpture, called “Growing in Illinois,” just to the south. In total these gardens will replace more than 10,000 square feet of lawn.

The mix of native plants to be used in the project was chosen with attention to preserving sight lines for safety and enhancing views of the sculpture. Once these plants are established they will provide year-round visual interest, and serve as a living link to the landscape of the past for the education and inspiration of all who pass by.

There’s a good news/bad news story regarding the funding that was required to make these gardens happen. The good news is that the Student Sustainability Committee, which allocates money accumulated through fees that U of I students assess themselves to support sustainability, awarded it $20,000. That’s enough money to buy the 40 cubic yards of mulch and 10,000 seedlings the plans call for. The bad news is, the grant does not cover costs for labor to get those 10,000 plants in the ground.

Can you see where this is heading?

That’s right; this is a plug for the biggest prairie planting party in town. On Saturday, June 6th, people of all ages are invited to come to the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Basic Sciences Building and get dirty for a good cause. Volunteers need not know anything about prairies or even gardening to help out, since experts from Grand Prairie Friends will be on hand to guide the work. And the work itself is really no more complicated than making small holes in the ground and popping plants into them.

For more information about this wonderful opportunity to help bring back a bit of prairie to the flagship university of the Prairie State, point your browser to