Student Stories

UChicago botanic gardens bloom in spring, reflect commitment to sustainability

Celebrating the campus’s 25th anniversary with botanic garden designation, Katie Martin Peck brings an environmental eye to new planting and landscaping initiatives on Campus South and beyond

For 25 years, the University of Chicago campus botanic garden has functioned as an aesthetic and educational display, offering a thriving oasis within Chicago’s urban landscape. Home to more than 1,400 perennials and 4,500 trees, the garden recently received the Tree Campus USA honor from the Arbor Day Foundation for its ongoing commitment to promoting green space. With the campus’ spring plantings now in full bloom, it is easy to see why the campus has earned these distinctions.

President Hugo Sonnenschein first initiated the construction of a botanic garden at UChicago in 1996, acting on a concept first proposed by John Coulter of the University’s botany department in the 1890s. The Botanic Garden Initiative, an ongoing funding effort to enhance and beautify campus landscaping, was so successful just a year later in 1997 that it earned the University the official designation as a botanic garden by what is now known as the American Public Garden Association. To date, UChicago is one of the only universities whose entire campus is classified as a botanic garden.

Much of the improvements to the 217-acre landscape were cultivated by longtime Associate Director for Campus Environment in Facilities Services Richard Bumstead, who retired in 2018 after 35 years of service. Katie Martin Peck succeeded him in that role in 2019, bringing more than 15 years of experience to the UChicago facilities services department. 

Before coming to the University, Peck conducted a wide range of new city and urban master planning in India, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and beyond. She also led a range of landscape architecture projects in the Midwest, such as the Zurich North American Headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill., the Fort Wayne, In., Riverfront, the Macy’s rooftop in downtown Chicago and private residences throughout the region. On campus, she works to evaluate the long-term viability of plants, maintain the garden’s biodiversity and promote overall sustainability.

On a given day, Peck works with her campus planning and sustainability team, the president’s office and many other departments to maintain campus beauty throughout the year. Brandon Rux, director of building trades, came to the University in March 2010 to preside over the elevators and trades, as well as oversee campus grid management. Together with their teams, Peck and Rux work to orchestrate the seasonal plantings on campus.

This spring, the garden boasts a wide array of plant and animal species. According to Kathleen Golomb, manager of campus environment, notable flowering trees this season include a show-stopping buttery yellow magnolia (Magnolia ‘Butterflies’) and white flowering redbuds (Cercis canadensis ‘Alba’) near the Quadrangle Club. Furthermore, rosy pink and magenta flowers of redbuds (Cercis canadensis) can be seen throughout the Social Sciences and Classic Quadrangles. 

Particular gardens to see include the Kramer Beds east of Levi Hall and the Regenstein Library Entry Garden. The Kramer Beds have begun an intense, continuous show of color starting with spring flowering bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, foxtail lily (Eremurus elwesii),  and crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis). One can also expect to see ornamental onion (Allium ‘Gladiator’) and multiple varieties of garden peonies (Paeonia) blooming in mid-May through June. The Regenstein Garden is brimming with plant material in an array of textures and colors, including natural drifts of wild hyacinth (Camassia) with starry clusters of icy blue, deep lavender and white flowers appearing in concert with creeping phlox (Phlox subulata ‘Emerald Blue’) and purple bubbles of ornamental onion (Allium ‘Globemaster’) dancing above it all.   

Below, Peck and Rux discuss their roles in upkeeping the garden as well as the recent additions and improved sustainability practices the community may find on campus this spring.

In your opinion, why is the UChicago botanic garden so special, and what does it have to offer to those that visit?

Brandon Rux (BR): Your typical urban campus is a lot of ‘hardscape,’ meaning a lot of sidewalks and a lot of roads. It's kind of cliché, but the campus is kind of an oasis in the middle of this industrial center. 

Katie Martin Peck (KMP): It’s diverse in its character and style and in the plants used due to the microclimate, the surrounding architecture and things like that. It’s a really interesting space to walk through that is not only an oasis in the surrounding urban context, but is educational and informative and has spaces I would believe for just about everyone to enjoy.

Since you came to UChicago, have there been any major changes to how the campus-wide garden, and its general landscape design, is managed?

KMP: I would say there has been a shift slowly occurring to plants that create a more sustainable environment. So focusing as much as possible on plants that don't require heavy amounts of irrigated water, or plants that are pollinator species. Plants that encourage wildlife and other fauna on campus (bird, bee and butterfly-friendly species) are something that we're really focusing on, as well. 

We're trying to minimize areas with annuals and maximize areas with perennials and shrubs so that we focus on permanent plantings rather than plantings that we have to turn over. And then there's also a movement we're working on, especially in the main quadrangles, to keep the plant palette a little bit more curated and minimal while still maintaining biodiversity. For example, instead of having eight different kinds of perennials, we have four. It’s a little bit more cohesive, but it's still diverse. 

BR: [We’re working on creating] natural landscapes that require less input. When I first started, there was no milkweed on campus. And now it's everywhere, to the point where we're having to remove it because it's becoming kind of invasive. So we save those pods and replant them in an area that maybe doesn't have as much milkweed for the monarch butterfly larvae, since that is their host plant and sole food source. Without it, the larva would not be able to develop into a butterfly.

Ducks on Botany Pond
(Photo by Jenny Fu)

How do you decide what to plant and where to do so? 

KMP: There are a lot of factors that go into choosing species, or even the type of plant, whether it's a tree or a shrub or a perennial: their soil conditions, the exposure (whether it's sort of sheltered from wind or whether it's really exposed) and what side of a facade it's on. 

There's also the context of what's around it that would inform the appropriate size. When we're considering planting, we're thinking about creating an environment that carries itself year round. Is there a lack of winter presence? Or is there a lack of summer, spring or fall presence? We think about making sure that we have this system that works together to create a cohesive environment year round.

What are some of the new beds on campus? 

KMP: There are hundreds of planting beds on campus, with many new gardens added since 2017, mostly, but not exclusively, related to new projects. On Campus South, for instance, we've added Woodlawn Residential Commons and Rubenstein Forum, and Study Hotel is coming on shortly. Those are all associated with many new gardens, planting beds and landscape features. 

There's the outlook and walkway that was added, associated with south of the Forum that will be open soon. And then at the courtyard of 1155, we are doing landscape enhancements that will improve the gathering spaces and create a much more lushly planted environment. 

Did you have any special plans in store for the gardens as the campus community returned from a year away due to COVID-19? 

KMP: We just continued to refresh and infill plantings where things had died out. We also focused on ensuring our campus spaces are as user-friendly as possible, so during COVID, we invested in lots of movable furnishings throughout the campus. It is so great to see them in constant use throughout campus.

What are you most looking forward to this spring?

BR: ​​The most interesting part of spring, for me at least, is the transition from snow right into the growing season. Oftentimes, Chicago has a very cold spring, much like we are having now.  Snow and cold weather changes over to sunny and 70 with little shoulder season between.  The rapid transition from dormant plant life into a vibrant, green campus is really exciting and something I look forward to every year. 

What is your favorite planting bed or area on campus? 

KMP: Oh, I don't know that I can pick a favorite. I guess I would say one of my favorite new additions would be the area south of the Forum. It's interesting in its execution and its messaging. That area is, I hope, one of the great landscaped spaces on campus that is also very sustainable. It is a water feature that deals with stormwater for both the Study Hotel site and Forum. It’s an amenity for people to use as a garden space and it's lushly planted and creates habitat for flora and fauna on campus, so it's multifaceted.

BR: My favorite area is the main quad because it's got a little bit of everything. You get the turf, you get the trees, you get the beds. But my favorite type of plant here is probably the milkweed, just because it brings butterflies to campus.