Lynn Watson is Michigan Tech's gardener, and she is digging a new home for a yarrow in a long, serpentine flowerbed in the campus mall.
Lynn Watson is Michigan Tech's gardener, and she is digging a new home for a yarrow in a long, serpentine flowerbed in the campus mall.

Dig It: A Garden Grows at Tech

by Marcia Goodrich

Lynn Watson stabs her spade up to the hilt into the willing dirt. "It's so excellent," she says. "This is like chocolate cake."

Watson is Michigan Tech's gardener, and she is digging a new home for a yarrow in a long, serpentine flowerbed in the campus mall. As anyone who has recently paid a warm-weather visit to campus knows, gardens have been popping up all over. Daisies, daylilies, rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans and their kin), purple coneflowers, rhubarb, violets, roses, monarda, hostas, blueberries, Russian sage, coral bells, dianthus, iris, sedums, geraniums, rose campion, lupine, hollyhocks, heliopsis, tulips . . . They are there because of Watson, who is catholic in her love of flowers and insists she does not play favorites. "Any plant that's where it's supposed to be is just gorgeous," she says.

Andy Niemi, Tech's grounds manager, was the first to recognize what gardens could bring to the University. "We wanted the landscape to complement the great work that was happening inside the buildings," he says.

Convincing others proved a long row to hoe.

"Some people tried to tell me we don't plant gardens because we have snow removal issues and we need space for Winter Carnival statues," says Niemi. He knew better: after all, the entire flower-loving Copper Country has snow removal issues. And somehow, he reasoned, snow statues and gardens could co-exist in harmony, even at Michigan Tech.

He persevered, and in summer 2007 Niemi hired Watson, a former biology teacher and advanced master gardener. "She has worked wonders and is better than anything I could have dreamed of," he says.

"I've heard nothing but good comments," he adds. "People actually enjoy going out and walking through campus. Every time you turn a corner, there's something different."

Most earlier attempts at campus landscaping had wilted against the hard reality of Keweenaw soil, or the lack of it. Before coming to the University, Watson worked at a local nursery, so she knew what she was up against. "This is the edge of old Portage Lake," she says. "A few inches down, its sand and cobble beach. Every year, we have more rocks boiling up."

Not to mention the wind off Lake Superior and the campus's much beloved trees, particularly its sugar maples, which shade out most other plants and suck water and nutrients out of the dirt like tall, stately, vacuum cleaners.

"You can't have a bunch of maples and a garden," Watson states flatly, firing a figurative shot across the bough. She doesn't suggest clear-cutting, but hints that there is a time and place for selective harvesting.

"Some of those trees are awfully sick," she says thoughtfully. "Sometimes we can take them down, get some sun in people's windows, and put in a garden."

Before they build those gardens,Watson and her crew often have to work through the well-intentioned efforts of the past, when plants were plopped into poor soil and mulched with decorative bark. Watson doesn't do that. "Bark has a lot of lignin, and it's hard to break down," she explains. "Microorganisms are busy with that for a long time, and they don't build the soil. We've raked up truckloads of bark and put it up on the Michigan Tech Trails. That's a good place for it."

Watson has built thirty-nine gardens since coming to Tech and has sixteen more planned for 2010. Some are tiny pocket gardens, tucked in wherever there are a few square feet of space. Others are wide, sweeping plantings like the one that runs the length of the Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts. Passersby stop to admire her work and often have questions. Watson is always happy to talk. A thick layer of hay covering all the new gardens has become the subject of conversation.

"Sometimes people think it's messy, and it bothers them," says Watson. She explains that the hay is just the top of a biodegradable three-layer torte of manure, newspaper mulch, and hay that is slowly turning the Keweenaw sand into beautiful, black, chocolate-cake dirt.

It takes time to lay the foundation for a good garden, but it's time well spent. Watson doesn't have to use herbicides, since most weeds are smothered. She doesn't use pesticides, either; the plants are so healthy they can withstand most insect assaults, and she doesn't mind picking a few slugs off the hostas. Sometimes she'll use chemical fertilizer, but annual applications of cow manure keep most of the plants well fed.

"They are really happy," says Watson, hands on her hips, surveying the plants in front of the Rozsa Center. It's a foggy, fall morning, good for planting. This is the last garden Watson will build this year, and it's falling asleep for the season.

As the coneflowers shed their petals, it's hard to imagine that in a few months campus will be awash in flowers, now settling happily into that good dirt. Gardening is a slow, seasonal art, and now all we can do is wait for spring.

How to build your own perennial garden spot

A good garden requires a lot of work up front, but building fertile, weed-free soil gives much better results in the long run. You won't have to water or weed nearly as much, and plants are more likely to survive and thrive.

Clear your spot. Smother, dig out, or otherwise kill all the vegetation and dig out the rocks. Or, just build a raised bed on top, about a foot deep. Two feet is better. You can brace the sides with rocks, timbers, fencing . . . whatever suits your fancy.

Put on a 50-50 mix of manure and topsoil about a foot thick—again, two feet thick if your soil is poor. Manure from a dairy farm is better than bagged manure from a store because it adds texture to the soil. Water thoroughly.

Plant according to directions that come with your plants; you may want to consult a gardening book. For example, don't put shade plants in the sun; don't plant water-lovers in the sand.

Cover everything except the plants with newspaper. This is the secret to fighting weeds. Watson uses sections of The Daily Mining Gazette, folded in half as you would find them in a vending machine. Wet the newspapers thoroughly as you overlap them on the ground, like roofing shingles. Hold them in place with lawn picks if the site is windy.

Spread a layer of feed hay (not straw) about four inches thick across the entire bed. Build up a collar of hay around each plant. This helps keep the soil from drying out, especially in the wind. Water again.

Over time, the newspapers and hay will decompose. By then, the plants will be big enough to shade out most weeds. Watson likes to put a few inches of manure in a collar around each plant in the spring, which fertilizes the plant and improves the soil. You can continue to control weeds over the years by smothering them with newspapers.