Looking at the bright yellow fist-sized blooms of marigolds, Katie Robinson said she was happy. Happy? She was in the second week of classes kneeling in the dirt, in the middle of a heat wave. But the senior horticulture major was right where she wanted to be.
During a three-hour class, she and her classmates worked on separate areas to renovate the “Rock and Roll garden” at the Illinois State University Horticulture Center, removing rock, weeding, and planting. As the end of class neared, the garden wasn’t quite finished. Instructor and Center Coordinator Jessica Chambers ’93 offered extra credit if they’d stick around another hour, but she didn’t have to. They wanted to finish.
“It just feels good to be out here,” Robinson said. “I worked at a garden center over the summer and we sold a lot. I feel like people are rediscovering what matters.”
Every week the horticulture students do something different in their herbaceous plant material class, but this was the biggest project of the semester. The 23-acre Horticulture Center on Raab Road is an outdoor classroom, offering students the chance to work with native and unusual plants.
“Having them touch and hold all the plants is the best way to learn,” Chambers said. “In ’93 when I graduated, there was no dedicated outdoor lab. Now you get to get your hands dirty and design and plant.”
When the Rock and Roll garden was created years ago, with donated musical instruments hanging from the gateway, students suggested a couple of names from popular rock bands, including The Smashing Pumpkins and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“I said, ‘No, that’s a bad idea, no smashing pumpkins,’” Chambers said, laughing while noting they grow pumpkins at the center.
Christian Ekhoff, a senior horticulture major, was planting drumstick alliums in a hollowed-out drum.
“Hopefully it will look like drumsticks,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve ever worked with these types of plants. I learn a lot better working with my hands. Being out here helps a lot.”
Jaylen Janes, a junior, was scooping mulch out of a wheelbarrow, spreading it around delicate moss roses.
“This is my only in-person class,” she said. “I’d much rather be out here with my hands in the dirt. We got to be creative. We were assigned a space and told to go at it. This is fun.”
Robinson has three labs this semester, from soils to plants, and feels fortunate to be working in nature.
“When everything else crumbles away, this is what’s still here,” she said.
Apply now for fall 2021.