A second Georgia county looks to revive its downtown with native plants

A University of Georgia program aimed at supporting pollinators across the state may be expanding even further south.

A group from Hawkinsville, Ga. toured the State Botanical Garden of Georgia on July 6 to explore bringing a Connect to Protect garden to the Middle Georgia community’s downtown. The visit was set up by Archway Partnership Professional Michelle Elliott, who is based in Pulaski County. Both the Archway Partnership and the State Botanical Garden are units of UGA Public Service and Outreach.

“Archway gives us so many opportunities to meet and work with other people that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to do because we don’t have those connections,” said Lora DePietro, who owns a bed and breakfast in Hawkinsville and is training to become a master gardener. “This has been a definite help.”

The goal of Connect to Protect, a program run through the Mimsie Lanier Center for Native Plant Studies at the State Botanical Garden, is to encourage Georgia residents, developers, landscapers, businesses and governments to install native plants to support pollinators and other wildlife. The native habitats, planted in downtown areas, in front of courthouses and next to schools, for example, help educate the public about the importance of native plants.

DePietro and other Pulaski residents are considering installing native plants grown at the State Botanical Garden in beds along Hawkinsville’s downtown and a pocket park. The project is part of a downtown beautification initiative that has already included hiring a street sweeper, purchasing waste receptacles and supporting the training of four master gardeners.

“This is an investment that gives us a sense of community and makes the downtown a nice place to go,” Elliott said. “The staff at the botanical garden did a great job explaining that there’s an educational component so that younger generations of folks can come and see what the plants are and understand why it’s important that we have the native pollinators.”

Several Connect to Protect projects already are underway. Macon-Bibb County officials had native plants grown at the botanical garden planted in several public parks last year. Another garden was planted near Athens Regional Medical Center. Lauren Muller, a graduate assistant at the botanical garden who is coordinating the program, installed another set of plants at Hendershot’s Coffee in Athens on July 8.

Muller led the tour for the Hawkinsville group, gathering information about the sites in the city and what kind of plants would work well in the downtown Hawkinsville area. She showed visitors the plants being propagated at the Center for Native Plant Studies

“I’m here to answer any questions,” Muller said. “It’s my job. I’m excited to work with y’all.”

Written by Christopher James

Q&A with Linda Chafin on her new book, Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Georgia and Surrounding States

Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Georgia and Surrounding States is the first field guide devoted exclusively to Georgia’s wildflowers, while also including a large number of plants found in neighboring states. 

linda chafin cover photo[1]Were you surprised that Georgia did not have a specific field guide like this before?

Yes, I was really surprised! All the states around us—South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina and even Alabama and North Florida—have all had field guides for years, if not decades, and why we didn’t have one for GA, I don’t know. Georgia has an incredible number of native plants species, up to about 4,000, and another 1,000 non-native plants. It’s a really diverse state and we needed our own field guide.

What was it like when you started to dig into all these different species? You picked 770, right?

Right. Well, it was pretty exciting and also it was hard because there are so many plants to choose from. What I tried to do was to choose the 700 or so species that the average person is likely to encounter if they are out on a hike or a walk through the woods or even driving down highways. Some of our showiest wildflowers pop up along roadsides. For instance, most people will know cornflower or golden rods. I tired to include a whole range of plants that just an average wildflower lover might run across.

Was this designed to be accessible to your average Georgian?

Very much so. I used English measurements rather than metric, even though as a scientist, I think the metric system works better, but most people don’t know it. I also tried to use common, every day terms instead of technical botanical terms, so people would be comfortable using the book.

How does the community benefit from having this resource? 

I hope that it will help folks learn more about their environment, which includes wildflowers, and motivates them to work for the conservation of plant diversity as the population nationwide grows, especially in Georiga. We are a fast growing part of the country; we lose our wildflower habitats. They get turned into parking lots and residential developments, and I hope that by learning to know and recognize plant habitats, people will be more motivated to conserve them.

It took you two and a half years to do this. When you were in the middle of this, did it feel like it was ever going to end?

No, it didn’t sometimes (laughs). I did a book on rare plant species years ago and there were about 240 plants in that book. So, I only had to do everything 240 times. But multiply that by three, and it was kind of stunning how much work 770 species involved. But it was fun and I learned a whole lot.

Do you have any favorites on that list?

People always ask me what my favorite tree or wildflower is, and I think it’s whatever I’m looking at at any given moment. Georgia’s plants have so many interesting adaptations to all the different habitats we have in the state. However, what really fascinates me is how plants are adapted to live in really extreme habitats, like granite outcrops or beaches or mountain tops, or adapted to different pollinators. So whatever environment I’m standing in, those are the plants that I like at that moment. 

Who helped with the photography for the book?

Most of the photography in the book were taken by Hugh and Carol Nourse, who are dear friends to me personally and have been really good friends to the Botanical Garden for decades. They were very helpful in putting this book together. Hugh and Carol basically turned over their archive of photographs to the Garden. So I had a wide range of images to choose from. For the plants that they had not photographed, there were several other people who made their photographs available to us from around the state.

Click here to purchase your copy today.

State Botanical Garden of Georgia works on prairie restoration

Last week, UGA State Botanical Garden of Georgia Conservation Horticulturist Heather Alley and Conservation Coordinator Jennifer Ceska attended the Mid-South Prairie Symposium at Austin Peay State University in Clarkesville, Tenn. Experts from around the country presented on the conservation value and rapid decline of prairies, savannas, woodlands, glades and barrens.

Prairies across the southeast United States are rapidly disappearing because of lack of fire or disturbance by bison and elk; the same things are happening right here in Georgia. Without disturbance, prairies are invaded by woody plants and turn to forest within 3-5 years.

These habitats occur in Georgia, and experts at the Botanical Garden have been actively researching prairie restoration on Georgia Piedmont and mountain soils for the last five years.

Piedmont Prairies are listed in the 2015 State Wildlife Action Plan as a high priority habitat in need of recovery and restoration. They support wildlife, and the guild of grassland birds is one of the most rapidly declining in the nation.

The Botanical Garden has a natural, intact, surviving prairie near its upper power line. At the garden, this site is referred to as the Elaine Nash Prairie Restoration Project. Elaine discovered the site and trained garden staff on prairie plant identification, seed collecting, propagation, restoration and management – all as a volunteer!

Rare plant species, birds, and butterflies rely up Piedmont Prairies. The garden has a prairie restoration project currently funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), that involves returning 10 acres from Bermuda lawn and old field to native Piedmont Prairie. This summer, garden staff and interns are applying restoration techniques to the land, peeling off the non-native thugs. This fall, garden staff and volunteers plan to begin planting several thousand plugs of prairies grasses and forbs grown by Heather Alley and her team at the Mimsie Lanier Center for Native Plant Studies—all of which are grown from locally sourced Georgia seeds.

So why is this so important? Simply stated, this work is significant because of the rarity of prairie habitat and the wildlife that relies upon this habitat for survival. But it is also a model for land management for groups like Southern Company and the Georgia Department of Transportation, who are keen to use native plants on roadsides and rights-of-way. The more we link up pockets of prairies, the more support to migrating species we create—species like migrating songbirds and Monarch Butterflies.

Learn more about the Center for Native Plant Studies.


UGA State Botanical Garden teams up with College of Education to teach kids about nature

Molly Samuel had as much fun yanking radishes out of the ground as the four-year-olds she worked with in a University of Georgia service-learning course.

“I’d never gardened before this class,” Samuel said. “Learning how to garden and grow it myself was rewarding and it’s rewarding for the kids, too. It’s much better to learn through experience.”

Samuel is one of 12 undergraduates in a class taught by Bridget Ratajczak, a clinical instructor in communication sciences and special education at UGA, and Anne Shenk, the director of education at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, a unit of Public Service and Outreach. The course, called “Nature as Teacher,” brings College of Education students into the Clarke County School District’s Early Learning Center (ELC), where Ratajczak is the professor-in-residence, to work with Pre-K and Head Start students in a program dubbed “Nature Explorers Club.”

The program aims to show young children where their food comes from and reinforce the importance of eating healthy. Each half-hour session starts with a puppet show to introduce concepts and is followed by activities in a garden behind the ELC. Each lesson builds on the previous week until the class makes salads with ingredients they’ve grown, including those radishes, during the semester.

“This is definitely more involved and rewarding than just going and having someone do observations,” said Virginia Caswell, one of the UGA students. “Being able to expose them to these novel experiences that they don’t get (otherwise) … is awesome.”

This is the fourth year Shenk and Ratajczak have taught the course, which combines lesson-plan development in the classroom with implementation in the garden. Shenk spoke about the course’s evolution during the Office of Service-Learning’s 10th Anniversary Showcase. Service-learning is jointly supported by the vice presidents for Public Service and Outreach and Instruction.

“The students learn about teaching science in a hands-on way,” Shenk said. “They get a sense of teaching with their own curriculum they’ve developed at an early stage (in their careers).”

One class in April focused on insects, giving a group of 4-year-olds a chance to look at live crickets. The college students practiced the lesson in class the week before to get comfortable with the insects. Ratajczak said one of the important lessons for future teachers is understand that how they react will affect how the children respond to different things in nature.

Ratajczak said she’s found her undergraduate students often have a lot of passion and are eager to make a difference out in the world. Service projects like Nature Explorers Club allows them to make an impact as part of their education.

“It’s different because we’re actually in the community,” Samuel said. “We enjoy being with the kids. It’s good to be actually doing stuff than just sitting in a classroom.”

UGA promotes pollinator program in Athens and across the state

If conservationists at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia have their way, the newly-dedicated Mimsie Lanier Center for Native Plant Studies will one day be obsolete.

“We will teach growers how to grow native plants for restoration, for gardening with native plants and we’ll have such a supply in the green industry that we won’t do that production anymore,” says Jennifer Ceska, the garden’s conservation coordinator. “We’re working to get these plants back on the land.”

Central to that vision is an effort called Connect to Protect. The program aims to install native plants in small, public spaces across the state to support pollinators and other wildlife. It’s a way to educate people about the importance of native plants by creating habitats in places like schools, businesses and public parks.

And the program is already getting traction.

Last fall, Macon-Bibb County partnered with the garden to install nearly 2,000 native plants in several public parks. Stephen Reichert, the chairman of the garden’s advisory board and a Macon native, hopes that project will serve as a model for partnerships with other communities across Georgia.

“We’ve gotten good publicity here in Macon and I have continued to talk to the director of park services about expanding and building on the start we have made,” Reichert said.

At a recent advisory board meeting, State Botanical Garden of Georgia Director Wilf Nicholls said other Georgia cities considering the Connect to Protect program include Madison, Watkinsville and Gainesville.

Mimsie Lanier, the long-time advisory board member for whom the Center for Native Plant Species is named, said she is coordinating with other advisory board members in Gainesville about putting together plants in that city.

Partnering with other communities is a major expansion from the program’s initial goal of building pollinator gardens in local schools. Connect to Protect began as a way for garden educators to venture into schools near Athens and run a variety of activities centered around native plants and pollinators. That evolved into a full curriculum, called the Connect to Protect module, that teachers can use on their own.

Graduate student Lauren Muller, who is coordinating the program this spring, is dreaming bigger than schools. She spent much of her undergraduate career at UGA volunteering with the Mimsie Lanier Center for Native Plant Studies.

A former barista, Muller already has gotten buy-in from Hendershot’s Coffee and Jittery Joe’s. A class with the Odum School of Ecology recently installed a plot of native plants for Connect to Protect at Athens Regional Medical Center’s Healing Garden off Sylvan Road.

“We just want as many gardens as possible,” Muller said. “It doesn’t matter the size. We are trying to create continuity in pollinator habitat. Sticking to just schools isn’t going to help that goal. We need to diversify and get these gardens in people’s yards, in coffee shops, local businesses, that sort of thing. I think word is getting out and people are getting really excited about it.”

It’s the perfect synergy of education and conservation, Muller said. The biggest obstacle is that most people don’t know how to care for native plants. The garden can provide experts to examine potential sites and provide tips, she said.

“They think that it is mysterious and challenging, but it’s not,” Muller said. “It’s a matter of proper siting and knowing what kind of species you’re working with. Education is a huge aspect of it.”

Plantapalooza spring plant sale at UGA raises $31,000

Plantapalooza, which brings together three University of Georgia units for one big plant sale, was held April 9 at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, the Trial Gardens and the UGA Horticulture Club. The event attracted thousands and raised $31,000 to be used for plant collections and horticulture supplies.

The sale offered an assortment of garden plants that thrive in the Southeast. Horticulturists, volunteers and master gardeners were on hand to help with plant selection and to answer gardening questions.

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, 2450 S. Milledge Ave., is the headquarters of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance and the Georgia Gold Medal Plant Program. A selection of trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, herbs, vegetables and more were at this sale, held in the garden’s horticulture complex. Many Georgia native plants are grown at the garden for this sale. The garden is a unit of the UGA Office of Public Service and Outreach.

The Trial Gardens at UGA, 220 W. Green St., grow and test the newest annuals and perennials from plant breeders throughout the world. Profits from the plant sale help fund research and continued support for the garden. The Trial Gardens are part of the horticulture department in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The UGA Horticulture Club sold garden and landscape plants near the intersection of Riverbend and College Station roads. Horticulture faculty and students were available to help with plant selection. Profits help fund horticulture club scholarships and educational activities at UGA.

Information about the event, directions to the gardens and information about participating retailers in the Athens area is available online at

Education director at State Botanical Garden wins lifetime achievement award

Anne Shenk, who launched educational programming at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in 1984, was presented a lifetime achievement award from the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia.

Members of the alliance joined staff members at the garden to present the Eugene Odum Lifetime Service Award to Shenk. She is the 12th recipient of the award since 2001.

“I’m very surprised,” Shenk said. “I had no idea people were coming today. It feels nice to be acknowledged by colleagues, to see my work acknowledged in that way.”

Shenk plans to retire later this year following more than three decades of service. She was the lone member of the education staff when she arrived in Athens in November 1984.

Today there are three people on the garden’s education staff, overseeing more than 200 programs that register more than 10,000 people each year. Classes are taught both to UGA students and all ages of the general public.

“Anne has given us this incredible professionalism and links into the university,” said Wilf Nicholls, director of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, a unit of UGA Public Service and Outreach. “She really has built a really strong bridge with the (UGA) Odum School of Ecology and education. She’s really developed professionalized education here and taken it one step further than just the general public.”

Shenk holds degrees from the Universities of Rhode Island and Colorado. Before arriving in Athens, the New Jersey native taught in the Peace Corps, ran an environmental education center in Rhode Island and taught a pre-college program at the State University of New York. She helped form the Environmental Education Alliance in 1992 and was the organization’s president in 2005 and 2006.

“We started basically just trying to figure out how to reach people (at the botanical garden),” Shenk said. “Now, we really are doing important work with three-year-olds up to any age.”