RORG’s 2021 Year in Review

By the RORG Team

While 2020 was the year that we had to scrap and rewrite plans, 2021 was a year filled with new life and vibrancy. We were able to meet stewardship and fundraising goals for our grant, build our bridge, and welcome students back to campus in the fall. Many of those students discovered the garden for the first time and came to us offering to volunteer. It reminded us of a quote Eliana has above her desk,”To take care of something, you have to love it.” We are grateful for all the love the garden has received this year. Hope you enjoy our look back!

Note: throughout this blog, you’ll find Layne’s favorite plant combinations. Be sure to check those out as you plan your 2022 gardens!

LATE WINTER

The year started out with our donors pushing us past our $7,000 fundraising goal which was matched 3 to `1 by the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation (ICECF) per our Community Stewardship Grant. We also achieved another grant goal of logging 100 social media stewardship hours, bringing us an additional $2,000 from ICECF.

Another fortunate turn was when Morgan White, Associate Director at Facilities & Services for Sustainability, introduced us to Shannon Tucker. Shannon, an architect, and former F&S construction manager, was seeking a way to volunteer on sustainability projects. Morgan suggested that Shannon might be willing to help us manage the RORG bridge construction. This proved to be brilliant as you’ll see when you read on.

Rounding out our luck, we worked with Kate Dietwig-Morris, Internship Program Director for the Department of Communication, who connected us with a wonderful student, Sandra Bjerga. Communication Intern Sandra immediately proved her worth by helping coordinate our second annual Mulch Madness native plant competition. This competition, begun last year as a parody of the NCAA’s “March Madness,” yields our most popular posts on social media, with hundreds of people playing along and thousands of people interacting with the fun and educational contest. Out of the 28 competing species, this year’s champion was Virginia Bluebells after a hard-fought final battle with last year’s champion, Butterflyweed. Congratulations, Virginia Bluebells!

By late March, it was time to wake up the garden for the growing season. Last year, we only had one late-winter workday before the COVID-19 restrictions. This year, restrictions had lifted and everyone was eager to get in the garden. In one afternoon, 35 volunteer hours were logged by ten people!

Late Winter Blogs:

SPRING

In the Garden
Early spring was met with an array of stunning spring ephemerals that were installed in fall 2020. Hundreds of Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica), ‘Prinses Irene’ tulips, Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia), Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), and Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata) were in bloom simultaneously. They were very popular with passersby, many of whom would stop by for photo ops. The groundcover plants installed in the 2019 renovation filled in nicely at the beginning of their second growing season. As spring progressed many other species began blooming including Southern Blue Flag Iris (Iris virginica var. shrevei) and Prairie Alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii). Communications Intern Sandra turned out to be an excellent photographer and captured many of our spring bloom photos you see.

With help from Extension Coordinators Tabitha Elder and Amanda Christenson, RORG established regular workdays, which were every Friday 9 – 11 am. The team was thrilled to welcome several new regular volunteers from the Champaign County Master Gardeners and East Central Illinois Master Naturalist programs. Volunteer numbers tripled in 2021, and the garden benefitted tremendously! Each new volunteer was given an introduction to RORG and was trained on garden care. Thanks to all of these volunteers, in May, the ICECF Community Stewardship Grant goal of logging 400 hours of volunteer service was met, securing us an additional $4,000 to support work in and around the garden.

In May, Extension Horticulture Educator Ryan Pankau boosted the health of RORG’s 200-year-old red oak by injecting a mycorrhizae soil inoculant into the soil around the base of the tree. Ryan writes, “These valuable fungi form a symbiotic relationship with plants by infecting roots to derive energy from plants that they cannot create on their own. In return, the plant root’s ability to absorb water and nutrients is enhanced by the fungi. In this relationship, both organisms benefit and thrive from the shared resources each can offer.” Read more about the process in Ryan’s News-Gazette In the Garden column.

Public Engagement
RORG Director Eliana Brown and RORG Landscape Designer Layne Knoche gave six virtual presentations to various groups and organizations across the state throughout the spring, with each focused on rain gardens and lessons learned from the build and renovation of RORG. These presentations introduced hundreds of people to RORG, ushering in a flurry of new followers on social media and visitors to the garden. Four garden tours also occurred in the spring, which brought in several new student volunteers.

Spring Blogs

SUMMER

In the Garden
Spring blooms faded and summer blooms took the spotlight as species like Southern Blue Flag Iris (Iris virginica var. shrevei), Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata), Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida), ‘Rozanne’ Geranium (Geranium ‘Rozanne’), and Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) hit their peak bloom in June and July. Grey-Headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Royal Catchfly (Silene regia), Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Orange Coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida), and Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) were soon to follow. A notable addition to the 2021 summer blooms were those of Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum) which performed beautifully after being installed in fall 2020.

In early June, the long-awaited boardwalk bridge that spans the garden was completed. Built of sustainably-sourced Black Locust harvested from Allerton Park and milled by The Wood Shop, the bridge was built by Olympic Construction, LLC headed by Andy Frick. Shannon Tucker, RORG Construction Manager, shepherded the process, working with Dave Dowler, F&S Associate Director of Construction Services. In July, Mike Brown, F&S Code Compliance Specialist, granted permission for the bridge to be opened. Prof. Bill Gamble served as our Structural Engineer. Funding came from ICECF. We are grateful to everyone involved in the creation of this beautiful amenity and plan to write a future blog with more details. In the meantime, learn more by reading this article from the F&S Insider Magazine.

Public Engagement
RORG volunteers (aka Red Oak Rain Guardians) continued weekly workdays with the RORG Team, keeping the garden beautiful while getting lessons on particular native plant species from Layne.

Eliana and Layne gave one large virtual RORG presentation and provided tours to six separate groups and organizations throughout the summer. One of the late summer tours, given during Orientation Week for Lincoln Avenue and Allen Residence Hall students, was attended by more than 50 students!

Summer Blogs:

FALL

This fall, the team said a fond “farewell“ to RORG Social Media Manager and long-time RORG friend Kate Gardiner. Read about it here.

In the Garden
With funds from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation Community Stewardship Grant, the RORG Team expanded the rain garden with 1,400 additional plants, 6 new trees, and 9 large shrubs. CCMG & ECIMN volunteers, UIUC students from Landscape Architecture, Horticulture, the UIUC Student Chapter of ASLA, and the UIUC  Society of Women Engineers (SWE) all gained valuable hands-on experience installing and learning about a wide variety of native plants, as did Girl Scout Troop #2915 and various other volunteers from around campus. Learn more about the Fall 2021 expansion here.

Along with all of the excitement of the garden expansion, many plants were showing off their fall interest, with species like Smooth Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), Orange Coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida), and White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) reaching their peak bloom. RORG’s Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) had stunning foliage later in the season.

The MANY student and youth volunteers who did service-learning activities at RORG this fall. Photos by Eliana Brown and Layne Knoche.

Public Engagement
Eliana and Layne provided five guided RORG tours and one RORG-based presentation in the fall months, mostly to student organizations and university classes. RORG has become a popular location for classes from Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, with multiple instructors using the space as an outdoor classroom.

RORG also hosted trainees of the 2021 Champaign County Inaugural Rainscaping course. As part of the hands-on training led by Extension Educators Erin Harper and Ryan Pankau, the group learned about rain gardens and installed hundreds of plants in the garden.

Fall Blogs:

EARLY WINTER

In the Garden
So far this winter, it’s been relatively quiet, abnormally dry with no measurable snow to date. Still, bright pops of red can be seen on Red Chokeberry and Red Twig Dogwood, and the seedheads of Orange Coneflower remain an aesthetic feature of interest while providing nourishment for songbirds.

RORG volunteers gathered one last time for the year to “winterize” the garden, ensuring that enough leaves are removed as not to suffocate the plants underneath while leaving as many leaves as possible to promote the health of our pollinators and other wildlife that needs leaf cover in winter.

Public Engagement
Extension’s Dennis Bowman brought his drone back to the garden to capture new footage now that the garden has grown so much since his first visit. Eliana and Layne recorded a tour for Parkland College which will be available soon. Eliana also did a presentation internal to Illinois Extension that included information about RORG. Layne visited Catherine Wiesener’s Unit One ceramics class that made new mosaics for the garden. Sneak peek look is here.

Via a News-Gazette feature, the RORG Team was delighted to find out that Prof. Jonathan Sweedler, “the most influential analytical scientist on Planet Earth,” does some of his best thinking on his daily commute walking by the garden. That’s a great way too end the year!

Early Winter Blogs:

Conclusions

In the Garden
The garden performed beautifully in 2021! Thanks to the hard work, adaptiveness, and dedication of the team and volunteers, the garden has a bright future. The bridge, which has already proven itself popular with the campus community as a photo op, is functioning exactly as designed – people no longer have to cut through the garden while passing through. The plants, and especially the groundcovers, were “creeping“ quickly through the garden creating a dense layer of “green mulch“, and the addition of spring-blooming ephemerals captured the attention of the public and supported early season pollinators. 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 full resolution 2021 bloom calendar.

Public Engagement
Since January 2021, our online presence has also grown. RORG’s social media following is up 50% with RORG’s website being viewed nearly 9,000 times. That’s a 23% increase from 2020! The top-performing blogs included Mulch Madness, Improving Campus Sustainability One Green Space at a Time, Farewell, Kate!, and RORG’s First Builder: Interview with Professor Tony Endress. Guest bloggers this year featured two Illinois Extension Natural Resources Energy and Environment Educators who provided clues for identifying wildlife tracks in winter and explained the importance of soft landings. Along with the interview of Tony Endress, the team’s Student Intern, Sandra Bjerga, also interviewed Dr. Andrea Faber-Taylor and lead Master Naturalist Karen Folk which made for some wonderful blogs.

With 15 RORG tours and 9 RORG-based virtual presentations, the team was able to reach hundreds of people from across the country. At a single presentation to the Montgomery County, Maryland Master Gardeners, more than 200 people learned about RORG, including several Illinois alumni who were thrilled to learn about our project! You can find recordings of many of our presentations here.

Our volunteer base also increased nicely this year, with our list of regular volunteers growing from 4 to 12 by the end of the year. In total, nearly 100 volunteers spent time in the garden this year with hundreds of hours of work-time logged.

Final Thoughts
As we’re finishing our second year managing RORG post-installation, we’ve noticed that support for our project is following a growth pattern similar to the plants themselves. Native plants generally take three years to establish. They “sleep, creep, and then leap“, with the work done during the first two years happening beneath the surface. Last year we put down roots and began establishing a volunteer and donor base — the foundation of a healthy support system for the garden’s long-term success. This year was the year that we expanded this foundation. We progressed with RORG’s final construction phase, developed our volunteer base further, and transformed space beyond the garden.

We can’t wait for 2022!

Layne and Eliana at RORG during the Fall Expansion. Photo by Red Oak Rain Guardian Tana Willaredt.

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

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