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Big plants and bigger plans for the Garden Club

Professor Sarah Swope is the new director of Mills' Botanical Gardens. where students can volunteer their time. (Hart Rosenberg)
Professor Sarah Swope is the new director of Mills’ Botanical Gardens. where students can volunteer their time. (Hart Rosenberg)

Just under a dozen students gathered outside the Gaia House on the first cool, cloudy weekend of the school year to lend a hand and a trowel to Dr. Sarah Swope’s efforts to revamp the gardens for the 2015-2016 school year.

Saturday, Sept. 12 marked the kickoff of a new year of planting, planning projects and ecological experiments at the Mills College Botanic Gardens. Dr. Swope, assistant professor of biology at Mills, replaced Ann Prentiss as director of the Botanic Gardens.

Swope oversaw the students’ efforts on Saturday morning, directing action and doing plenty of planting of her own.

“The garden has been neglected for a few years, and we’re trying to revive it,” Swope said.

Students joined together to carry out Swope’s new vision for the gardens, including planting fruit trees, building raised garden boxes and establishing a new herb and vegetable garden. At the end of the day, the hard work of the students had given new life to the previously sparse garden.

“[It was] amazing, totally amazing,” Swope said of the work done Saturday afternoon. “[There were] lots of volunteers, which was great, and lots of new people. We got way more done than I thought we were going to!”

However, this is only the beginning of the revitalization of the Botanic Gardens. This year, the gardens will be the site of a high-priority project to restore several critically endangered plant species.

Along with her research team of Mills students, Swope gathered soil samples from the Tiburon Peninsula just north of San Francisco and hopes that they will be able to germinate and grow dormant seeds of the critically endangered Tiburon Mariposa Lily and Tiburon jewelflower. You can read more about Swope’s research in this 2014 article.

“We’re trying to understand whether or not there is any dormant seed in the soil, and whether or not that could reduce the risk of extinction,” Swope said.

Swope also emphasized that the Garden Club is strongly student driven. The latest of their many student-planned and implemented projects is a special milkweed garden meant to sustain populations of endangered monarch butterflies.

Devon Thrumston, a senior Biology major, has been working with Swope for two years and is one of the heads of the Garden Club.

“I’m excited that students are getting actively involved in the direction the botanic garden is taking,” Thrumston said.

Swope and the Garden Club are also currently working to expand the garden beds for student use and for class projects.

Though many of the new beds are reserved for biology class experiments, participation is not limited to biology majors. In the Spring semester, Swope will be leading BIO 55, a plant ecology class open to non-majors, hoping to bring fresh perspectives from students of all majors with an interest in ecological sustainability in agriculture.

At the end of the day, at least one student came away inspired by success of the Garden Club’s work.

“I felt inspired by all the different plants in the greenhouse,” said Madeline Wallsten, sophomore environmental studies major and member of the Garden Club. “And I look forward to meeting people with similar passions and finding ways to improve the environment together.”

Anyone who is interested in getting involved can send an email to Thrumston at:

Students work to create new garden beds in the Mills community garden. (Hart Rosenberg)
Students work to create new garden beds in the Mills community garden. (Hart Rosenberg)