Establishing the Gardens at Ewing Cultural Center


A major renovation follows the vision of ISU’s founder

Illinois State University (ISU), located in Normal, Ill., has added a new dimension to its existing Fell Arboretum with the establishment of the Genevieve Green Gardens at the Ewing Cultural Center. A major grounds renovation and garden establishment project coincided with the university’s 150th anniversary last year. Fell Arboretum encompasses the entire ISU campus. It was named and officially registered as an arboretum in 1995, recognizing the tree focus efforts of Jesse Fell, the university’s founder. The 6-acre Ewing Cultural Center that hosts the Genevieve Green Gardens is the former Ewing Manor, in adjacent Bloomington, Ill. It was bequeathed to the ISU Foundation in the 1980s and had primarily hosted ISU’s Shakespeare Theatre project.

Turf is removed during major construction on the front lawn.

Completing a major renovation project while keeping the site open for regular use throughout the summer was a major grounds management challenge. Although Mike O’Grady, ISU grounds operations director, cited the challenges, he considered working with the project a career highlight. O’Grady said, “It’s not often that someone gets to work with a $2.5 million renovation project.”

Part of a $5.9 million gift to the ISU Foundation from the estate of Bruce Green, in memory of his wife Genevieve Green, was used to cover the cost of the project.

Darcy Loy, assistant grounds director, noted that the design goal for the gardens was to reestablish the ideas of Landscape Architect Jens Jensen, hired by the Ewing family to design the landscape for the manor home in 1927. “It was to give peeks to the outside viewer that something interesting was happening inside,” Loy said.

“With the renovation,” Loy continued, “it has become a much more used public space. Previously, it was private and open only for special events. Now [that] it’s open daily, people are using it, walking the grounds. It’s a work in progress.”

About 12,000 annuals will be planted this spring to enhance the extensive perennials, woody plants and trees. In addition to public use for informal walks and tours, the site is an outdoor classroom and laboratory for horticultural students as they gain hands-on experience. The establishment of the Genevieve Green Gardens will move the university a step closer to Fell’s vision of botany and forestry studies at the school.

The Japanese Garden that was installed in the1980s remains intact.

Site challenges

Shakespeare Theatre activities include an annual Illinois Shakespeare Festival. “We had 300 to 500 people on the site frequently during the renovation,” O’Grady said. The Great Lawn—a wide expanse of turf that provides a view of Ewing Park—was cleared out, with only a small section of turf remaining intact for activities during the renovation.

Fell envisioned trees as a major focus at the campus and obtained a state grant to plant more than 1,700 trees at the university’s start in 1867. Trees received extensive attention in the Ewing Cultural Center grounds renovation. “We removed about 50 trees, some of which had heavy damage from disease or storms, but we protected the many mature trees on the site,” O’Grady said.

Seventeen semi loads of pavers were installed to build pathways.

A certified arborist on staff at ISU oversaw the pruning of various trees for health or safety reasons where trees overhung walkways. A number of trees were added, including native redbuds and sunset maples. Amur maples were planted on the Great Lawn. These will be sheared to form a living fence to screen off the service area used during special events on the Great Lawn.

Paved paths lead visitors through the site.

Renovation process

STS Engineering, Peoria, Ill., completed the design work based on Jensen’s 1927 landscape plans. The project’s general contractor was Felmsley-Dickerson out of Bloomington, Ill. Visitors are introduced to the grounds by way of a new visitor entry into the Compass Garden leading to the Formal Plaza at the front of the manor house. The gardens to be developed over the coming years will be a collection of themed gardens envisioned by Jensen. [A Woodland Garden that existed on the site has been given more structure and contains a number of wildflowers.] A Japanese Garden was previously established on the grounds as a gift to Ewing Manor from Bloomington-Normal’s sister city, Ashikawa, Japan. Bloomington-Normal are considered twin cities and participate  jointly in many projects.  The garden contains a number of elements traditional to a Japanese garden important for quiet contemplation. It includes a pagoda with seating and a dry river bed of rocks, and it is a popular location choice for weddings. “It was established before ISU acquired the property,” O’Grady said. “Some of the plants have had to be replaced because their scale at full growth was inappropriate. It is now being revitalized with the bamboo fence rebuilt and gravel walkways defined.”

An arbor area has been established as part of the Compass Garden at the entry. Climbing hydrangeas have been planted in the arbor, and O’Grady said the climbing hydrangeas will eventually cover the steel structure.

Renovation work began late in the fall of 2006. Primary construction started in spring of 2007, but was slowed by unusually heavy June rains. “The grass was Roundup killed,” O’Grady said. “A four-blend perennial ryegrass from GROWMARK was seeded because we needed quick establishment.”

Seeding was done at a high rate of 25 pounds per 1,000 square feet, and a starter fertilizer was used. “We will move back toward a bluegrass mix because of its disease resistance. We fought Pythium and gray leaf spot with fungicides.”

Annual plants will be grown and installed this spring by Procknow Landscaping of Bloomington. In addition, extensive perennials, including hostas and vinca, and a high number of woody plants, such as boxwood and chokeberry, highlight the site.

All lawn, plants and trees are irrigated with an irrigation system that was installed by Commercial Irrigation, Peoria, Ill. O’Grady said, “it’s unusual to have so Much irrigation in such a small, compact space. It is connected to the main ISU grounds computer and can be managed remotely from my office location.” a Hunter controller is used with Rain Bird heads and valves, and city water provides the irrigation source.

Paved pathways lead visitors through the grounds and are designed to wind through the yet-to-be-developed gardens. Seventeen semi-loads of clay pavers were installed on the site over a 4-inch concrete base topped with 1 inch of sand. Holes were drilled 2 feet on center to allow water to percolate.

A unique feature from Ewing Manor’s past is the inclusion of “100 Year Posts” along the pathways. The concrete posts were part of a fence that surrounded the property and were patented and manufactured by the concrete company of Davis Ewing at a time when wooden posts were still the norm on the Illinois prairie. “We’re using them as ‘way finders’ to help guide people along the paths,” O’Grady said.

Containers with seasonal plantings highlight the manor entrance and other locations on the grounds. The site now enjoys year-round use with special indoor decorations added at holiday time.

Seasonal plants greet visitors at the entry.

Current maintenance

ISU uses compost that is processed at an ISU farm, and the compost includes leaves from the town of Normal. Wood chips are obtained from a Normal cooperative wood recycling project.

“We spoon-fed the turf,” O’Grady said. “Our last dormant feeding was in November with a granular 24-5-15. We normally fertilize with CoRoN liquid every 30 days. I’ve not believed in liquid, but this one from Helena Chemical has done well for us.” The lawns are mowed at 2.5 to 3 inches once or twice weekly as needed. O’Grady noted that the deep black loam is an asset in managing turf, and that the move back to a bluegrass turf will likely take three to four years.

Mike O’Grady and Darcy Loy discuss the "100 Year Posts" that were incorporated into grounds pathways.

One grounds staff person is dedicated to the Ewing Cultural Center grounds with supplemental summer staff added. “We hope to have students doing institutional maintenance,” O’Grady said.

Future themed gardens called for in the master plan of the Genevieve Green Gardens will further expand the educational opportunities and public enjoyment of the grounds.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Turf. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.