BIG RAPIDS – Community gardening enthusiasts, donors and Ferris State University faculty, staff and students gathered today (Oct. 9) for the dedication of Helen’s Garden. Nestled between the north sides of the Alumni and Prakken buildings, the garden is lovingly named after one of the university’s founders Helen Gillespie Ferris.
“Helen had a love of gardening, so it was only fitting a garden be named in her honor,” said Carla Miller, Ferris associate vice president for Advancement. “When you think about gardens, it’s not just about the plants but about people coming together.”
The garden was conceived by retired Ferris professor Frank Crowe. “Last year as my retirement was nearing, I began researching the lives of Ferris founders Woodbridge and Helen Ferris and became infatuated with Helen and her influential role in establishing Ferris Industrial School,” Crowe, who retired in 2009 as head of Ferris’ Criminal Justice program, said. “She was quite a mover and shaker, and the more I learned about her the greater appreciation and admiration I developed for her. Establishing a garden in her honor was the perfect way to recognize someone who delighted in nature and was so important in the creation of what is now Ferris State University.”
Helping bring the garden from vision to reality was John Vanderploeg, Ferris professor of Biology and coordinator of the Ornamental Horticulture Technology program, and his students. They began working on designs for the garden following the ceremonial groundbreaking Sept. 9, 2009, as part of the University’s 125th anniversary celebration.
“I was able to work this project into my curriculum by planning a lot of class activities
around it. The students liked it, too, because it was something that was actually
going to be installed on campus. Most of their hands-on experience has been with residential
design, and this gave them something new to work on that would have a lasting impact
on the University and the surrounding community,” Vanderploeg said, suggesting that
this is the largest and most meaningful project he has overseen during his 37 years
Vanderploeg said he narrowed down 12 student designs to three and then ultimately to Josh Ackerman’s winning design with input from other project leaders.
Ackerman, who graduated this past May, said, “Helen’s Garden was designed to be practical and useful, despite its formality that is reminiscent of the Victorian era. The plants for Helen’s Garden were chosen because of their availability and popularity during that time period, and a fair number of the plants included in the design are native to the Big Rapids area, giving the garden familiarity with its surroundings.”
The garden features plant varieties notable in late 19th and early 20th century gardens such as Lily of the Valley, one of Helen’s favorite ground covers, Miller said. Other selections include “Limelight” Hydrangeas, “Louisa” dwarf crabapples, “Indian Summer” Rudbeckia, “Mount Baker” lilacs, irises, roses and boxwood shrubs. Cuttings of “Lonicera,” a woody shrub, also have been taken from the Ferris’ original home in Big Rapids and will be propagated.
“This was a very special project,” added Sueann Walz, Ferris Board of Trustees vice chair. “The creation of the garden signifies Helen’s kindness and gentleness, and how you can give back…pay it forward in your community.”
The story of the Ferris Institute is also a love story between two remarkable individuals, Helen and Woodbridge Ferris, said David and Patsy Eisler. Some is known of Mrs. Ferris from the memorial volume put together by Woodbridge Ferris when she passed away in 1917. It is easy to sense his love and admiration for this remarkable woman, his wife of 42 years.
“In these pages, Mrs. Ferris is described as a beautiful, dignified, gracious woman who loved books and drama, and who delighted in nature,” Patsy said. “For me it is so very meaningful that we gather here today to honor one of our founders, Helen Gillespie Ferris, and that we do so by recognizing her great love of the out of doors and of flowers.”
Helen’s Garden was created through private support from individuals including Jack and Susan Batdorff, the Eislers and other individuals and businesses that also share a passion for gardening. For more information about how you can contribute to Helen’s Garden, please contact Ferris’ Advancement office at (231) 591-3825.