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New curators dig in at UW–Madison’s public gardens

July 7, 2015 By Chris Barncard

Photo: Ben Futa

David Stevens (top photo), curator of the UW Arboretum’s Longenecker Horticultural Gardens, uses a pair of hand shears to prune plants, while Ben Futa, curator at the Allen Centennial Gardens, uses a hand cultivator to remove weeds.


Plants brought new curators to a pair of public gardens at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, but it’s people that Ben Futa and David Stevens are hoping to see more of.

“What I like the most about the public garden setting is connecting people with plants,” says Futa, the new curator at Allen Centennial Gardens in the center of the UW–Madison campus. “People come in and say, ‘I’ve never seen this plant. What is it?’ Or they ask, ‘How do you get away with growing this in Wisconsin?’ And you get to share something with them.”

At Allen, that brand of sharing has gone on for nearly 26 years. Across town at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum, untold thousands have visited Longenecker Horticultural Gardens since its first lilacs were planted in 1935. And yet, Stevens is only the third curator of the gardens — following his graduate school advisor Ed Hasselkus and William Longenecker, who also served as Arboretum executive director in the 1930s.

Stevens shares his predecessors’ deep attachment to his new surroundings.

Photo: Daniel Stevens

David Stevens

“Arboreta are a love of mine,” says Stevens, who studied ornamental horticulture at UW–Madison. “My wife and I actually met at an arboretum and botanical garden 28 years ago in Dallas, Texas. Whenever we travel, if there is an arboretum or public garden nearby we make sure to visit.”

Stevens was greenhouse manager at Agracetus in Middleton before spending the last 13 years as a forest genetics research specialist in UW–Madison’s Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. For the university, he worked with state-run bare root tree nurseries, breeding new generations of trees from the progeny of superior wild plants.

Breeding trees that may take decades to reach maturity requires taking a view of the future much deeper than a single growing season. At the helm of an 80-year-old garden made up of about 6,000 mostly-woody plant specimens, Stevens must practice a similar brand of long-term planning — but with a slightly different focus.

“In forestry, you’re selecting for growth rate, tree architecture and disease resistance,” Stevens says. “In ornamentals, you’re looking for things like fall color, fruit retention, and architecture in a different form — how it looks in the landscape instead of how many board feet are in the trunk.”

“Sustainability is a drawing card, and Longenecker may be able to complement the sustainable aspects of the native landscapes at the Arboretum.”

David Stevens

The Longenecker garden, known for the lilacs and its expansive collection of flowering crabapple trees, seems an odd match for an Arboretum so deeply tied to the field of restoration ecology and the protection of native plant species. Stevens would like to link one mission with the other.

“Sustainability is a drawing card, and Longenecker may be able to complement the sustainable aspects of the native landscapes at the Arboretum,” says Stevens, whose wife markets herbal products from the bounty on their 130-acre organic farm near Baraboo. “Edible landscapes and permaculture — looking at landscaping as something to utilize beyond beauty — are things we can link into right away. We can help people understand with real examples the ways a particular deciduous tree species might help shade a home in the summer, but allow the sun to warm it in the winter.”

Stevens would like to strengthen campus’s connection with the garden through research and coursework in fields like horticulture, botany and landscape architecture, but most pressing is finding a way to make the vast Longenecker collection easily accessible to visitors. For now, the full collection (past and present) is packed into file drawers — each plant on an index card.

“The first thing was to create a definitive list — which we have, with GPS waypoints for almost everything in the garden — and now to make that list available and accurate in real time,” he says.

Photo: Ben Futa

Ben Futa

Futa, whose own attachment to public gardens began near his childhood home at Fernwood Botanical Garden in Niles, Michigan, has seen some very close personal contact with plants.

“When I worked in the Lurie Garden at Millennium Park (in Chicago), we’d come in in the morning and there would be a big human print in the echinacea — probably where somebody slept,” said Futa, who studied sustainability at Indiana University South Bend.

While he doesn’t think of his new gardens as a mattress, Futa is not one to fret over a broken stem or two.

“It is a little like a museum, with labels and catalog numbers,” he says. “But we don’t want people to think of it like it’s behind a pane of glass.”

Allen Centennial Gardens has advantages in that regard, Futa thinks, in that it’s open and free every day — and just 2.5 acres.

“Its scale is postage stamp, but that makes it relatable. Here, it feels to visitors like there are things they can pick up and take it home,” he says. “They may see a pot or container or small corner here, and picture it as a little piece of their yard or steps or annual garden. That’s empowerment.”

Showing visitors a full range of horticultural possibilities keeps Futa and a group of student interns busy with planning and planting to meet shifting seasons, but he wants empowered visitors to also be mindful of more than just the moment’s blossoms. That’s why he’s a fan of perennials — he gets to look forward to a plant in all its stages.

“(Visitors) may see a pot or container or small corner here, and picture it as a little piece of their yard or steps or annual garden. That’s empowerment.”

Ben Futa

“You watch a little salvia from March when they’re little rosettes of green,” he says. “And then they’re blooming, and then plants are pretty in decay, too. They’re not just brown. There’s taupe, sepia, terra cotta, sand, black, silver, gray, white.”

Of course, neither Allen nor Longenecker need be treated like research opportunities.

“You don’t have to know a thing about plants,” Futa says. “Just come out, and embrace the space.”