Supervisors seek to develop, publicize secret garden

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Past the food carts and chemistry labs on Science Hill, an eight-acre stretch of nature sits fenced off from the busy traffic of Prospect and Mansfield Streets. When most people dream of a wintry escape, it is probably something like the Marsh Botanic Garden, a hidden, sloping landscape with woodland wildflowers, cinnamon trees and herbaceous plants — all covered in snow.

But the garden is overdue for a facelift. Timothy Nelson, the director of the garden, said he plans to rework the garden’s rickety greenhouses and build a visitor center, among other development projects.

“We’ve been trying hard to make the garden more public and accessible,” he said.

While the garden underwent a planning study in the fall of 2007, in which Yale Facilities, the Provost’s office, landscape and architecture consultants, and faculty members evaluated ways the garden could be improved, Nelson said the drafting phase for development is currently at a standstill as a result of the University’s campuswide suspension of construction projects. Still, Nelson said, he hopes to focus on greenhouse rehabilitation to attract more visitors to the little-known grounds in the next 10 years. After weathering 82 years of landscape shifts and slides, the garden is ready for change.

“If we can keep enhancing it and restoring Marsh Botanic Garden, it will become a little jewel here on campus,” Nelson said. “We want people to appreciate that.”

Nelson, a passionate horticulturist who is also a Molecular Cellular Development of Biology Professor, said he believes the natural space should build on its past and evolve to meet the interests of researchers and horticulturalists. Originally a gift for the University from Natural History Professor Othniel Marsh in 1899, the garden is often underappreciated and overlooked by Yalies today, Nelson said.

“Marsh Garden was a nursery for a lot of the landscaping that has gone on at Yale,” he said. “We want to preserve its history.”

The garden was created in 1927 by famed architect Beatrix Farrand, who also designed the landscape for the rest of Yale’s campus in the 1920s. But the garden gradually fell from its original state under a disinterested faculty following World War II. Over time, renovations to Yale facilities and natural disasters worsened the effects: the construction of Greely Laboratory in the 1950s turned a rolling hill behind Marsh Hall into a treacherous steep cliff, and a summer tornado in 1989 hit Prospect Street, uprooting pine trees and creating pits. Currently, less than 15 percent of Farrand’s original designs remain in the garden.

“The landscape at Yale has changed significantly only as a function of development in that time,” said Eric Larson, the manager of Marsh Botanic Garden, who has worked at the garden for five years. “New construction and renovation means changes, and sometimes they can be drastic and not for the better of the whole community.”

But it is not only the environmental effects on the garden that have shifted the eyes of its directors and triggered a call for development. Nelson said he noticed a lack of awareness on campus about the garden and its history, resulting in a low number of campus visitors.

“There is a succession of students that come through as a part of classes, but that is only a little slice of the Yale community,” Nelson said.

For years, he said, the garden has geared its mission at Yale towards education, research and outreach. Yale professors in the sciences have concurrently used the garden as a resource for research in the Evolutionary and Ecological Biology, Molecular Cellular Development of Biology, and Forestry & Environmental Studies programs. But the garden is open to all of the Yale community and residents of New Haven at no charge. “We are here, and it’s a free visit,” Larson said. “The garden allows people to get out of their brick buildings and reconnect themselves with plants, nature and life.”

And the garden’s supervisors have made efforts to draw community members into the greenery. The garden hosts several horticultural and botanical workshops for students and community groups. Summer internships and a volunteer program for outdoor seasonal work are also available for college students.

But even with these programs, activities and inviting flora — including coffee crops, chocolate and banana plants — on-site, the garden has failed to attract a significant flux of students up Science Hill.

“The garden’s relative distance from the center of campus makes it an inconvenient destination and a negative aspect for undergrads,” said Thomas Bell ’10, who was an intern at the garden last summer.

The garden, which holds over 2,000 species, can also be a space for exercise or study, Bell offered, adding, “If students took their time to check it out, I believe that they’d be impressed by what they find,” he said.

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