Wilkes University

City of Green

Written by Carolyn Oravitz  - June 1, 2011 -  IndependentNEPA.com

Where would you go to find a Franklin tree, named after the one and only Benjamin Franklin, a Katrina Rose from New Orleans, organic native trees, and a unique bluestone labyrinth? You may be surprised to learn the answer– on the Wilkes University campus.

Thanks to the efforts of Patty Gilmour, wife of President Tim Gilmour, Wilkes has an unparalleled urban park for the enjoyment of the students and staff, as well as the community.

Wilkes University LabyrinthGilmour began this impressive project seven years ago and has since worked tirelessly, planting and caring for the trees and shrubs on campus. She first got the idea of planting a learning garden because she noticed that kids don’t get out to “enjoy the great outdoors” like they used to years ago. She wanted to create an environment that would bring students out to appreciate and enjoy nature. From all observations, she has been quite successful.

With 15 years of landscaping experience, Gilmour is second to none in her gardening expertise. She has planted more than 250 trees and an equally impressive number of shrubs on the Wilkes campus. A visit to the campus urban park, or learning garden, located between the Farley Library and Fenner Hall, reveals the variety of trees and shrubs growing there.

In 2004, much of this space was covered with parking lots. With the purchase of the parking garage on Main Street, the lots were no longer needed and could be replaced with grass, trees, and plants. Runoff from the campus parking lots contributed to the pollution of the Susquehanna River, so replacing them with green areas was an environmentally wise decision.

Walking around this area, you will find organic plum, cherry apple, and persimmon trees; beautiful dogwood and crabapple trees; red cedars; white pine; sourwood; yellowwood; copper beach trees; fringe trees that have white dangling flowers in June; and Mountain Ash. The Franklin tree does not grow in the wild, but was propagated by John Bartram. An interesting story explains that Bartram found these trees along a river in Virginia and named them Franklin trees after his good friend, Ben Franklin. This tree blooms in the fall and has an unusual bark. Gilmour gives this special tree tender loving care to keep it thriving.

The Katrina Rose also has an interesting story. A New Orleans resident returned to her home after the flood and found her house had been destroyed. The only thing that survived was a rose bush. She sold sprigs of the rose bush at Monticello to raise money for New Orleans. The Katrina Rose has become known as a very hardy rose and can now be found on the Wilkes campus.

Gilmour also added several benches to provide sitting areas in which to enjoy the natural surroundings. Some of the benches, as well as a fountain, were donated by Wilkes alumni. Gilmour also pointed out a sturdy wooden-looking bench made entirely from recycled plastics. Adding to the pleasant surroundings are pillars that she rescued from storage and a sundial on a pedestal.

The bluestone labyrinth, another of Gilmour’s creations, is also one of the highlights of this area. It was professionally installed and generously donated by alumnus, Bill Miller. The design, dating back to B.C. days, is a circular pattern leading to the center and then back out again. Walking a labyrinth path is often considered a means of quiet contemplation, prayer, or meditation.

There is also a wetland area on campus, offering a natural habitat to many birds. In fact, the entire campus is landscaped to attract birds.

“We have all kinds of nesting areas, shelter, feed, and water throughout the winter,” Gilmour said. “Winter berries, Hawthorne berries, spice bush, and native witch hazel, which bloom in the winter, provide sustenance, creating a natural bird habitat.”

The grass on campus does not receive chemical feed or weed killers, yet looks lush and green– proof that it is possible to have lovely grass without chemicals and herbicides that endanger plants and pollinating bees. Liquid fish food is the only fertilizer that is applied, and weeds are pulled by hand.

The next step in the project is to label every tree and bush, creating an Arboretum to serve as a learning campus for students and the community. Visitors are welcome to explore and appreciate this beautiful area, and volunteers are always welcomed.

Wilkes University will host a campus and labyrinth walk during RiverFest, on Saturday, June 18th, at 11 a.m., from the library parking lot. The public is invited to attend.