MSU Garden: Planting For The Future

Carolyn Hopper

Imagine opening a rusty gate in a brick wall and entering a garden you remember from long ago. The sight before your eyes is of a place once special, now neglected. The sundial that measured happy hours is missing, lights broken, blades of iris, fronds of poppies and bluebells all out of place among dandelions, litter under the benches.

Now imagine the garden being brought back to life. This is happening today in our neighborhood—Montana State University campus. Students from many fields of study from chemistry to art are working together to restore Danforth Park, formerly called the Iris Garden which was created eighty years ago by students during the depression.

I took a tour of the space on a sunny May day with Alexey Kalinin and Alata Howells, two of the students working on this project. Enthusiasm shone in their faces. They posed by the broken base where the sundial stood and explained how a new one is being designed. Cement columns covered in beautiful old lichens will remain while new lighting will be installed Alexey explained to me.

I asked both of them what was it about this space that got them interested in restoring the garden and had to write quickly to capture all the reasons why. At first it wasn’t so much about a garden as to connect with tradition. Then, as they got more involved and studied the rundown park between Wilson and Hannon Halls, they realized that they could recreate not only something that connects students today with history, but a beautiful gathering place. “No one stops to hang out together anywhere,” Alata said. “It seems that there is a lack of community on campus.”

“This gives students the opportunity to leave a legacy on campus,” said Alexey. “There hasn’t been a project like this for a long time. This is our way to give back for all that we have been given while we were here.” He also said that he felt that the students working on the project, as well as new students, will buy into the garden and its beauty and understand that this is their space, something to take care of and not a place for trash.

The garden was built by a women’s association on campus in 1930. They brought many organizations together on campus that helped to build it. Everyone contributed something—the women 50 cents, and the men $1.00. At that time it was called “The Iris Garden.” Professor Cheever painted the proposed garden and it was published in “The Exponent” showing the sun dial as the centerpiece. After the Danforth Chapel was built in the 70’s, the garden was renamed Danforth Park.
New buildings, lack of maintenance, the center of campus shifting away from that space, all contributed to its near demise. Today many students don’t even know it exists. I believe that is about to change.

Some attention will come from fundraisers—there will be a “Hangable Art” swap in October. And some will come as we spread the word about a spot of beauty where students, faculty and friends can pause in the middle of a busy campus and busy lives for a moment of refreshment. And on the note of beauty, the plan includes a planting theme that incorporates MSU’s blue and gold colors. The focal point will become Irises, since this was originally an Iris garden.

Work on the park will begin this summer. They are hoping to install benches and work on removing the overgrown shrubs. The paved area will be repaired. The plan is for the flowering plants to be installed next year.

Thousands of dollars have already been raised by students. Errol Schumann, a professional landscape architect of New West Landscapes, has volunteered hours of his time to help them with the design process. He has created perspective renderings and plans.

As I walked away from the garden with Alexey and Alata, I was filled with hope that a small space on campus will help to connect students with history, provide a legacy and uplift their spirits. At the new Alumni Plaza “Spirit” looks out toward the “M” and the Bridgers. I believe that there is as much of that spirit in quiet places as well as on the playing field.
The Vision Statement of “Project Iris” is: The conservancy of forgotten places. RESTORE this vision, ENHANCE the beauty, and PRESERVE the campus parks.” You can read about the project at: www.projectirisgarden.com

How can you help? Visit the park to see what it looks like now. Lend a hand when they are clearing out the old, overgrown bushes. Help plant some Iris’. Donate some “hangable art” to the fundraiser that will take place in the SUB ballrooms this fall. Share the space with a friend sometime soon.

“The garden is not a place, it’s a passage.” Octavio Paz