BIG RAPIDS – Community gardening enthusiasts, donors and Ferris State University faculty, staff and students who have been involved in creating what will become Helen Gillespie Ferris’ Garden on the Ferris State campus can anticipate noticing visible signs of the project’s development next week.
Jack and Susan Batdorff of Big Rapids are among those who share Helen Ferris’ love of gardening and are thrilled that the garden is beginning to take shape.
“We’re very happy to participate in this great initiative to model Helen Ferris’ famed garden planted some 125 years ago. This historical tribute to the first lady of Ferris is only apropos as one more exclamation point heralding Ferris’ 125 years of growth and dedication to Michigan higher education and the vigor and determination of its founders,” Jack Batdorff noted.
Patsy Eisler, Ferris’ current first lady, echoed Batdorff’s sentiments. “I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the life and contributions of Helen Gillespie Ferris, wife of inaugural president Woodbridge Nathan Ferris, than planting a garden in her honor as the defining moment in the culmination of our 125-year celebration.”
Carla Miller, associate vice president for University Advancement, said Helen’s Garden was conceived by retired Ferris professor Frank Crowe and will be created through private support from individuals including the Batdorffs, Eisler and other individuals and businesses that also share a passion for gardening.
Crowe, who retired in 2009 as head of Ferris’ Criminal Justice program, reminisced about the project. “Last year as my retirement was nearing, I began researching the lives of Ferris founders Woodbridge and Helen Ferris and became infatuated with Helen and her influential role in establishing Ferris Industrial School. She was quite a mover and shaker, and the more I learned about her the greater appreciation and admiration I developed for her. Establishing a garden in her honor was the perfect way to honor someone who delighted in nature and was so important in the creation of what is now Ferris State University.”
Excavation work between the West campus Prakken and Alumni buildings on Oak Street where Helen’s Garden will be located is scheduled to begin Aug. 16 with low maintenance flowers and dwarf trees planted during mid- to late September, according to Ferris grounds manager Will Gasper.
Early work in the garden area where Old Main once stood before being destroyed by a fire in 1950 will consist of removing some existing plants around the perimeter and preparing the ground for the installation of new plant beds and a stamped concrete walkway. A large circular sitting area with benches and white picket fence will formalize the space.
Plant selection has been underway for some time, Gasper said, explaining that the garden will feature plant varieties notable in late 19th and early 20th century gardens such as Lily of the Valley, one of Helen’s favorite ground covers. Other selections include “Limelight” Hydrangeas, “Louisa” dwarf crabapples, “Indian Summer” Rudbeckia, “Mount Baker” lilacs, irises, roses and boxwood shrubs. Cuttings of “Lonicera,” a woody shrub, have been taken from the Ferris’ original home in Big Rapids and will be propagated, Gasper said.
“Different plants and trees will be grouped together in four planting beds and identified by plant markers so the garden can serve as an educational tool in keeping with Helen’s love of learning and cultivation of lives,” Gasper commented.
John Vanderploeg, Ferris professor of Biology and coordinator of the Ornamental Horticulture Technology program, has been passionately involved in developing the vision for Helen’s Garden as have his second-year students. They began working on designs for the garden following the ceremonial groundbreaking of the garden Sept. 9, 2009, as part of the University’s 125th anniversary celebration.
“I was able to work this project into my curriculum by planning a lot of class activities
around it. The students liked it, too, because it was something that was actually
going to be installed on campus. Most of their hands-on experience has been with residential
design, and this gave them something new to work on that would have a lasting impact
on the University and the surrounding community,” Vanderploeg said, suggesting that
this is the largest and most meaningful project he has overseen during his 37 years
Vanderploeg said he narrowed down 12 student designs to three and then ultimately to Josh Ackerman’s winning design with input from other project leaders.
Ackerman, who graduated this past May, said, “Helen’s Garden was designed to be practical and useful, despite its formality that is reminiscent of the Victorian era. The plants for Helen’s Garden were chosen because of their availability and popularity during that time period, and a fair number of the plants included in the design are native to the Big Rapids area, giving the garden familiarity with its surroundings.”
Ackerman, who is self-employed and resides in Newaygo, hopes to use the knowledge and skills he acquired in the Ornamental Horticulture program to design mobile applications on gardening.
Vanderploeg and his current students will oversee the planting and maintenance of Helen’s Garden, which spans approximately 10,000 square feet. Other University and community volunteers will be sought to contribute to the garden’s upkeep.
“Helen’s Garden will certainly add to our current and future students’ portfolio of experience and complement their involvement in maintaining our tree nursery at Katke Golf Course,” Vanderploeg said.
For more information about how you can contribute to Helen’s Garden, please contact Ferris’ Advancement office at (231) 591-3825.