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SIUE's The Gardens Celebrates 30th with Virtual Fundraising
Illinois Ag Connection - 11/19/2020

For the last 30 years, beauty, recreation, tranquility and nature have been intertwined, displayed and open to the public as The Gardens at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. This living laboratory is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a virtual campaign that runs through Dec. 5.

"The Gardens at SIUE remains a horticultural, recreational and community treasure in southern Illinois," said Marian Smithson, The Gardens at SIUE Advisory Board chair and one of The Gardens' first master gardeners, a person trained in the science and art of gardening. "To keep The Gardens flourishing during this difficult period, we are initiating a fundraising campaign."

To participate in virtual fundraising, visit

Gardens1"The Gardens has seen financial challenges in recent years because of state budget cuts," said Smithson. "We currently do not have any paid staff and have made other financial cutbacks. We are asking the community and our supporters to not only help sustain The Gardens, but also help it thrive."

Smithson reflected on The Gardens' history to illustrate its longevity and foster more appreciation.

"From the early years, the University's master plan designated the 36-acre area north of Cougar Lake's parking area as an arboretum," she said. "In April 1990, Donal Myer, School of Sciences dean, and Frank Kulfinski, professor of environmental sciences, announced plans to develop this property. Their vision was to create an aesthetically pleasing arboretum to support academic interests of the University, and a place of beauty and relaxation for the community. When Myer died in August 1990, the board of trustees designated the area as the Myer Arboretum."

MarianSmithsonIn 2003, Ralph Korte, SIUE alumnus and Highland businessman, served as advisory committee chair to the Missouri Botanical Gardens (MOBOT), which ultimately named the arboretum as one of three MOBOT Signature Gardens in the Metro East. Terra Design Studios of Pittsburgh was hired to develop a master plan for the 36-acre site that was more diverse and drove the decision to rename it The Gardens at SIUE, according to Smithson.

"Two years later, Douglas Conley was hired as the first director of The Gardens," she added. "During Conley's time, The Gardens was leased to the SIUE Foundation, and a Founding Friends group was formed to raise an initial $100,000 for development.

"During Conley's tenure, significant developments transformed the look of The Gardens, such as The Hardy Family Wind Forest, The Gardens Center, The Lantern, Shakespeare's Garden and Prairie Portal Garden."

Conley encouraged campus and community volunteers to contribute work at The Gardens, which received approval from the University of Illinois Extension Office, and The Gardens became a site for graduates of Master Gardener and Master Naturalist programs, she explained.

Conley resigned in July of 2011 to become director of the gardens at the Edsel Ford House in Michigan. Jane Drake was named The Gardens director in 2012. Drake developed a campus/community advisory board, and plans for the Treetop Bridge and visitor parking area. Drake resigned in 2014 when she and her husband moved to Montana.

"Following the bridge developments, resources for operations became limited," Smithson noted. "Then, when the state budget crisis occurred in 2016, The Gardens groundskeeper and student staff were eliminated in July. Since that time, The Gardens' plantings have been maintained by volunteer master gardeners and master naturalists, who contribute 2,500 to 3,000 hours annually."

However, The Gardens has not been without leadership and oversight. Master Gardeners Bill Hanke and Smithson served as volunteer coordinators from 2009-19. Carol Gardner is the current coordinator.

The Gardens Advisory Board, a 10-member board of campus and community leaders, continues to advise the vice chancellor for administration on long term plans for The Gardens and on fundraising. The Gardens continues to rely on private support for operations expenses.

"The Gardens at SIUE is an oasis signifying beauty, serenity, and tranquility that serves not only the University community, but also our entire region," said Vice Chancellor for Administration Morris Taylor, PhD. "Its simplicity augments its elegance, and it will remain an indomitable beacon that will continue to thrive for generations to come."

For more information about fundraising efforts and The Gardens, contact Smithson at

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