Gateway Learning Gardens


Zinnia Zahara ‘Fire’ and Strawflower ‘Dreamtime Giant White’

Perhaps you are one of the many people enjoying the colorful gardens this summer on the south side of the Gateway campus.  The Learning Gardens were created in 2005  as a teaching lab for horticulture students.  The garden was designed by students in an advanced landscape design class and installed by members of the Wisconsin Landscape Contractors Association, southeast chapter.

The gardens are used in many classes to provide hands on experience to horticulture students.  Plant identification is a major goal of horticulture training with students using the gardens to  learn about herbaceous and woody plants of all kinds.  Landscape management techniques such as pruning, mulching, bed preparation and planting skills are also learned here.

This past summer Gateway became a ‘Trial Garden’ site for Ball Horticultural company.  Ball Horticulture is one of the largest plant breeders/brokers in the world.  They donate plants and seeds to Gateway of new plants for testing and evaluation before they are released to the commercial market.  The plants are evaluated for growth in our greenhouse as well as how they perform outdoors once planted. The seeds and plants arrive in early spring and are planted and cared for in the Greenhouse Crops classes.

Of course none of this would be possible without the dedicated efforts of Kathy Estep, Horticulture Specialist and greenhouse grower extraordinaire!  The spring bedding plant crop requires constant attention with Kathy and staff  reporting to the greenhouse even on weekends in spring to make sure the fragile seedlings don’t dry out.  Once  the plants are ready in May, Kathy and several part-time workers begin the huge job of planting about 2,000 sf of campus  flower beds.  This year Kathy was assisted by part-time employees,  Art Henning, Sarah Krause and Rich Odegaard in creating the beautiful gardens we all enjoy.   A field study class, taught by adjunct instructor Carol Beatty, were also important partners in planting and maintaining the gardens this summer  The gardens require a lot of attention throughout summer.  Watering, weeding and general management are required all summer, in spite of the heat and bugs, to make these gardens look as great as they have this year.  The gardens are important not only to the horticulture program but also provide a positive image of Gateway as a place of growth and innovation.  

In September the Wisconsin landscape Contractors Association Southeast chapter held their monthly meeting at Gateway and toured the gardens.  In October Linda Guy from the Kenosha News wrote an article for the paper about the garden.

A garden is never really ‘finished’.  Plants grow and die, some take over, while others are crowded out.  Students in the Herbaceous Plants class have worked hard this fall removing invasives such as purple coneflower and Russian sage which seeded all over and choked out less vigorous neighbors.  Students hacked their way through fragrant sumac that threatened to overtake an entire bed.  One goal for classes this fall is to have students re-design a portion of the learning garden and incorporate more woody and herbaceous perennial plants to be planted next spring. The horticulture club has generously authorized $1,000 from plant sale profits to be spent on plant material for the learning garden. 

Some of our favorite plants this year were the ‘Zahara’ zinnia series from Ball.  Zinnia marylandica ‘Zahara’ is a smaller, neater version of the traditional Zinnia elegans.  The colors are primarily reds and oranges but a cherry color and a white and red stripe  are also available.  This year double flower forms were introduced which performed just as well as the single flowered types.  The plants are free-flowering with long-lasting, self-cleaning flowers.  They are very heat and drought tolerant so great for commercial settings.  The plants have bloomed continuously in the gardens from May until the first hard frost in late October.  The plants are completely mildew-free and don’t seem to be attacked by Japanese beetle as ferociously as their cousin Zinnia elegans.

Zahara™ Starlight Rose Zinnia

Zinnia marylandica ‘Zahara Starlight Rose’ – one of our favorites in the Learning Gardens this year.  Ball Horticultural image

Black seems to be the new favorite plant color and this year the black petunia, ‘Black Velvet’ stole the show.  The flowers really are a deep, dark purple but do appear truly black.  The black petunia is a plant made better by the right neighbors and planting location.  It’s best to keep ‘Black Pearl’ in a container or a planting bed where it can be seen close up.  The black color can fade into the background when planted in a distant bed with a backdrop of soil or mulch.  Plant it in a container next to a white petunia with a limey center or with  pink or coral and it really makes the colors around it pop. This is such a dramatic plant that it could be used as a theme to build an entire event or party around.  Think  ‘Black and White Ball’ or ‘Halloween’.  Two other black striped versions are also available.  This petunia has already won numerous awards and is sure to be the ‘hit of the season’ next spring.  We will have the black petunia series for sale in May at our spring plant sale.

Black Velvet – Bal Horticultural image

Phantom – Ball Horticultural

Pinstripe – Ball Horticultural image

While not a trial garden plant, students and staff continually ask about the dark-leaved annual Capsicum annuum ‘Black Pearl’ or ornamental pepper they see growing in the planting beds.  Another dark-colored plant, it also serves as a contrast to other plants around it.  Shiny black peppers form in late summer nestled in the dark foliage.  Later the fruits turn red, and yes they are edible, but very HOT! 

As the fall season begins, people begin asking about the beautiful mounds of purple they see in the learning Garden.  ‘Purple dome’ aster is a fall blooming perennial seen in the ‘Fall Garden’ section of the Learning Gardens.  A backdrop of tan switchgrass or Panicum virgatum makes a lovely fall scene. 

Ornamental pepper ‘Black Pearl’ and Zahara zinnia ‘Double Fire’ with a little ‘Solcito’  zinnia mixed in.


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