RORG’s 2020 Year in Review

By the RORG Team

Against all odds, 2020 was a pivotal year for the Red Oak Rain Garden – complete with several pivots. Some might say hard-fought and they would not be wrong. Here are the RORG Team highlights of um, wow, quite a year.

LATE WINTER

The RORG Team started out 2020 by applying for a stewardship challenge grant with the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation that provides 3 to 1 match on donations raised, which is very important for the garden. By late February, we received word that we were awarded the grant and could start fundraising in March. Yes, March 2020. 🤷‍♀️

For obvious reasons, it didn’t seem like a time to ask people for donations. So, instead, we did our first pivot and held a contest known as Mulch Madness to provide a virtual alternative to the cancelled NCAA basketball tournament. We all must have needed the diversion because it was our most viewed blog of 2020 with 1,436 views. First prize winner Amy Doll selected her prize as a gift certificate to the local business of her choice, Common Grounds Dekalb. Someday we’ll visit this place as they are super friendly and their baked goods look amazing. The winning plant was Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Orange flowers are big at the University of Illinois!

Due to COVID-19 restrictions. Extension volunteers were not allowed to work in the garden and students were asked to remain home after spring break. To put this into context, maintenance is CRUCIAL to first year native plant success due to the way they “sleep, creek, and leap” and we had no volunteers to do it. We were worried. Truth be told, we were worried about a lot of things beyond Red Oak Rain Garden, but this was one thing we could focus on and do something about. To accomplish spring maintenance, Eliana added early mornings shifts at the garden hand-picking weeds before her day of computer work began. Likewise, Layne put in significant time on maintenance to ensure the success of the 2019 plant installation. We had done too much work in 2019 to let 2020 do its 2020 thing.

No volunteers allowed to be in the garden. Can you tell Eliana was worried? #worryselfie

Happily, the wisdom of the layered planting design — especially the thick groundcover — coupled with dedicated early-season maintenance held the weeds at bay. Within a few weeks, Spring arrived at RORG and with it, our spirits lifted when we saw the plants.

SPRING

In the garden
The 2020 growing season was the first real test of the Fall 2019 garden renovation. Results were phenomenal. With a survival rate of 95%, the plants performed well and were showier than we could have imagined. Spring rains helped our plants green up, and by mid-May the garden was filled with a lush groundcover. Speaking of spring rains, the garden did its job as a rain garden, successfully absorbing some big storms in no time.

Public Engagement
Eliana and Layne’s last in-person RORG presentation was at the Gateway Green Conference in Collinsville, Illinois on March 4 before we went virtual. As mentioned, university students were advised to stay away from campus. To engage remotely with them, the team partnered with Keegan Thoranin, Animal Science freshman and Unit One/Allen Hall resident, who created a social media series called “Why Rain Gardens are the Best” and Noah Horsley, graduate student in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, who developed a Songbird Spotlight.

Spring Blogs

SUMMER

In the garden
June and July saw a rush of beautiful floral displays at the garden. Only four plant species did not bloom, which is expected as some species need another year or two to reach full flowering maturity. Heavy rains were few and far between, so Layne established a watering schedule. Pollinators were in abundance including plenty of Monarch Caterpillars found in our Butterfly Weed. They apparently agree with Mulch Madness voters that it’s the best plant in the garden!

During summer, Extension Educator Erin Harper and her interns from the Student Sustainability Farm were granted clearance to work in the garden. They accomplished some key maintenance tasks in June while our Extension volunteers were still sidelined. To everyone’s relief, Extension allowed the return of volunteers in July, albeit with social distancing protocols. We’re fortunate that RORG is a big space, making that easier.

July was also the last month in the garden for RORG Project Engineer Tony Health as he completed his Masters in Urban Planning and left Illinois for full-time employment. Before leaving, he and Carl Carman installed a rainfall monitoring station, allowing RORG volunteers to contribute data to a nationwide system known as CoCoRaHS. RORG is station IL-CP-133.

Public Engagement
Over the summer, we began to notice more people walking by the garden as everyone learned that it’s safer to be outside. Many people asked about our plants and about bridge construction. These questions reminded us that it was time to raise funds for future improvements. So, in August, we started our fundraising campaign with a $7,000 goal.

Also in August, Eliana, Kate, and Layne had a great time as guests on Illinois Extension’s LIVE! with the Horticulturalists Facebook show, attended virtually across the Midwest. #trending
Thanks to Horticulture Educators Candice Hart, Ryan Pankau, Kelly Allsup, and Communicator Erin Knowles for inviting us!

Summer Blogs

FALL

In the garden
This fall, our fundraising campaign had given us enough donations to install thousands of native ephemerals and introduce a non-native tulip. To be a non-native species in RORG, a plant has to prove its value. We have hopes that Prinses Irene, with vibrant orange (that favorite color again) will live up to its promise and complement the blue of Virginia bluebells. Learn more in this blog.

Ceramic tiles, which were designed and created by Instructor Catherine Wiesener’s Fall 2019 ARTS 210 class, were installed along the borders edge. People walking by asked LOTS of questions about these popular additions to the garden.

During the ephemeral plant installation, we arranged for students to gain hands-on experience compliant with COVID-19 protocols. Andrea Faber-Taylor’s Horticulture 344 and Bridgette Moen’s Landscape Architecture 452 classes worked with Extension volunteers to install 2,000 additional plants.

Yes, our Extension volunteers were back! East Central Illinois Master Naturalists and Champaign County Master Gardeners are always valued — this year more than ever. Our rainfall monitoring initiative has volunteers from these programs along with a staff member from neighboring Allen Hall.

Public Engagement
Though it was an unusual semester, many students were on campus for the fall semester and the RORG Team adapted our outreach to them in new ways. During student orientation, we gave a virtual presentation to the LAR Sustainability Living Learning Community, including a scavenger hunt that encouraged them to visit the garden.

We also hosted our first Student Team of four incredible students from Instructor Eric Green‘s Environmental Studies (ENVS) 492: Sustainability, Energy, and Environment Capstone class. Read more about the Fall 2020 Student Team and their accomplishments here.

Eliana gave a virtual RORG presentation at the Southern Illinois Conservation Workshop, and Layne gave socially-distant presentations at the garden to university classes including Rob Kanter’s Earth, Society, and Environment classes. To top it off, the garden was also featured on WCIA’s CI Living program!

Fall Blogs

EARLY WINTER

In the garden
Once the Sycamore and Red Oak leaves had fallen, RORG’s Master Naturalist Lead Karen Folk and Layne worked with Facilities & Services Grounds on an early-winter garden cleanup in targeted garden locations. This cleanup helps ensures our still-establishing plants don’t suffocate under deep leaves. However, because it’s also important to support over-wintering insects, we left the leaves in several large areas of the garden.

Public Engagement
Eliana and Layne were featured presenters during the CCDC Annual Meeting and the Champaign Master Gardener Annual Meeting. Eliana attended the NGICP Train-the-Trainer virtual course and gave a RORG presentation to nationwide green infrastructure professionals. The team has several virtual presentations lined up for early 2021.

The Fall 2020 RORG Student Team gave a final presentation of their semester findings and social media analytics. We are on TikTok because of them and can you get more 2020 than that?

Kate initiated RORG’s first Giving Tuesday Campaign, which boosted fundraising from 83% to 92% of our $7,000 goal!

Winter Blogs (so far)

CONCLUSIONS

In the garden
The garden performed well in 2020! Thanks to some hard work and dedication of the team and volunteers, the precarious beginning of the year finished up better than expected. Through the growing season, we kept track of the start and end bloom dates of each species in the garden. Click here to see the 2020 bloom calendar for an overview.

Public Engagement
Since January 2020, our social media presence has also bloomed. 😊 Facebook followers have increased by 43% while our website had more than 6,670 visits. Further, our Mulch Madness bracket has been downloaded nearly a thousand times and the Plant Collection pdf downloads are in the hundreds. Guest bloggers this year included an economist that writes like a poet and a pastry chef/biologist who baked with RORG acorns. We hosted a delightful Student RORG Team that made a connection between our native plants and Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration. Our second most popular blog after Mulch Madness featured Dennis Bowman and his drone photography.

RORG plants and social media presence are not the only things that have grown. RORG’s fundraising campaign kicked off August 2020 with a goal of $7,000, which will be matched 3 to 1 with a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. With each new contribution, we and our partner, the Champaign County Design and Conservation Foundation, have watched with joy as our “giving” tree filled. As of late-December, we are 92% of the way to our goal! See the end of this blog for a link to learn more about how to help take this campaign to the finish line.

Final Thoughts
Although 2020 was unpredictable, we reached more people than ever via virtual events, saw the first blooms since the renovation, watched the garden successfully absorb stormwater from heavy rains, and expanded our community of supporters. All (mostly) from our computer screens.
We wish you a great holiday and a healthy and prosperous 2021! – Eliana, Kate, and Layne

If RORG fits in with your year-end giving plans, please consider a tax-deductible gift.

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