Abby Johnson and Josh Darfler work on the Awbury Arboretum, a 55-acre public garden, in Germantown, Pa. They are part of the University of Delaware's Longwood Graduate Program in Public Horticulture who work at the garden.

Native Delaware: Reaching out

UD's Longwood grad students donate time, energy to Awbury Arboretum

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2:28 p.m., Sept. 21, 2012--“If you build it, they will come” may work for baseball fields but it’s not always enough for arboretums. 

Case in point -- the Awbury Arboretum, a 55-acre public garden laid out in a series of open spaces, with mature trees and shrubs overlooking scenic vistas. It’s a pocket of lush greenery in the Germantown neighborhood of northwest Philadelphia.

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“Even though the arboretum is free and open daily, it’s underutilized by the community,” says Sara Levin Stevenson, a student in the University of Delaware’s Longwood Graduate Program in Public Horticulture.

Stevenson and her fellow grad students hope to make positive changes at the arboretum via their Professional Outreach Project (POP). As part of the project, the students recently completed designs for signs in and around the arboretum. One set of signs should create more inviting entryways around the perimeter of the arboretum; another set will help visitors better navigate their way through the property. The students also have developed plant lists to add color and seasonal interest to several entrances.

Each year, the Longwood students tackle a new POP in early July, shortly after the first-year students arrive on campus. By the end of September, the bulk of the project is completed. As the POP acronym implies, the students pop on to a site, assess the situation, determine what can be done quickly and effectively, and then complete the job.

“I love the Professional Outreach Project because the students learn a tremendous amount in a brief period of time,” says Bob Lyons, director of the Longwood Graduate Program. “They’re immersed in a fast-paced, short-term assignment and have to think on their feet. Plus, it’s great to see how area organizations have benefited from this program.”

Past POP projects have included a design for a therapeutic garden for mental health patients at Delaware State Hospital; a program and membership development strategy for Scott Arboretum in Swarthmore, Pa.; and a meadow management plan for Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia.

Last spring, the students reviewed proposal requests from gardens throughout the tri-state area before deciding to work with Awbury. Choosing which organization to play fairy godmother to wasn’t easy, recalls Stevenson, who is a co-leader of the project. 

“There were many deserving organizations but since I have an interest in community outreach I was excited that we decided to go with Awbury,” says Stevenson. 

The Longwood students hope that their project encourages residents to visit Awbury more often and see it as their community’s special cultural institution with a focus on plants.

“We really want to get Awbury on people’s radar screens,” says Stevenson. 

Stevenson learned about urban gardens and community outreach before she arrived at UD. After several years as a Latin teacher in Seattle, she decided she wanted an outside job, working with her hands. She joined an all-woman, organic landscaping company in Seattle and after several years became the education intern at Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia.

Her master’s thesis will focus on the ways that gardens and local communities can support each other. “Places like the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and the gardens at UC Davis are doing some really exciting things to engage the local community,” notes Stevenson. 

First-year Longwood student Josh Darfler says he learned a lot from the Awbury project.

“Awbury is a great organization that faces some challenges,” says Darfler. “However, their ability to reach outside their walls and connect with the community is something I hope I can start to learn before this project is over. Various organizations have formed a great core network that strives to keep Awbury thriving and active through good times and bad.”

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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