For many students, writing a thesis means late nights filled with caffeine, but for Lauren Muller, a University of Georgia graduate student in horticulture, it means planting a pollinator garden.
On Tuesday Sept. 19, Muller and a team of volunteers and staff members from the UGA State Botanical Garden of Georgia planted a pollinator garden featuring almost 480 native plants near the D.W. Brooks Mall which is next to the Science Learning Center.
According to Muller, a lot of technical research has been done on how pollinators such as bees can be supported in urban environments like Athens. Muller said her thesis will examine how to improve native plant materials in the Piedmont region through accessible learning experiences in the community.
“We wanted to do this to act as a living landscape, so there would be educational signs teaching students walking past why these native plants are important, what sorts of insects they support and birds,” Muller said. “Not only would it be a beautiful addition to the landscape, but the education component is huge.”
The garden is a part of the UGA State Botanical Garden’s Connect to Protect program, which plants a series of gardens around the community and educates people on the importance of native plants on the environment.
According to the Connect to Protect website, pollinators and other insects depend on native plants, and these insects go on to pollinate two thirds of the world’s crops. Threats to insects also have implications that climb up the entire food chain.
Muller plans to convey the environmental importance of native species with this new garden.
“The garden has two main purposes,” said Heather Alley, a conservation horticulturist with the Mimsie Lanier Center for Native Plant Studies at the State Botanical Garden. “The main one is education and outreach to the University of Georgia audience. The secondary goal is to support wildlife and native plants. [Muller’s research] is to quantify if the garden is meeting its educational goal with the public.”
In order to research how effective the garden is on educating students, Muller said she will be starting a lecture series on native plants and insects in the HORT 3440 Herbs, Spices and Medicinal Plants course, where she is currently a teaching assistant.
Muller said she will survey students regarding her lectures and the effectiveness of the educational information on display in the garden. In doing this, she hopes to gauge student awareness and interest concerning the environmental importance of native plants and pollinators.
Muller conceived this project over a year ago with the help of her professor Dr. Jim Affolter. She had previously been involved with the botanical garden as an assistant and researcher and used this experience to springboard her thesis.
“Initially I thought that I wanted to work with the propagation of native plants and habitat restoration and that sort of thing,” Muller said. “But I’ve found that I really enjoy the public service and outreach aspect. I saw this as an opportunity to bring that area of interest into my research.”
After conceiving the idea, she looked for funding and secured a grant from the Vaughn-Jordan Foundation, which supports college students involved in botany and horticulture.
Muller said she and representatives from Connect to Protect presented their proposal to the UGA Grounds Department. Grounds presented them with a few sites around campus before they settled on the D.W. Brooks location.
Muller said a garden had previously been planted at the site, but it failed due to poor soil drainage. To give Muller’s garden a better chance of survival, Grounds added mulch and improved topsoil conditions, but Muller was still careful in her plant selection to help her plants survive the naturally poor drainage.
“An important part of this garden is that not all native plants work in every site,” Muller said. “It’s all about choosing the right plant for the right place. We have taken these site challenges into consideration when we are choosing the plants.”
According to Alley, the State Botanical Garden has a year-long agreement with Grounds to maintain the garden. If the garden successfully matures, Alley expects the agreement will be renewed.
Muller said after she graduates in Spring of 2018, she would like to keep working at the State Botanical Garden to continue her involvement in public outreach projects such as this garden.
“The point is that not everyone can be a horticulturist, not everyone can get involved with plant conservation on a large scale as far as habitat restoration goes, but everyone has the power to make a difference, even if it’s just in a small way putting a few native plants in their garden. We want people to get involved in whatever way they can, and the Connect to Protect program is a great way of doing that,” Muller said.
Kelly Mayes contributed to this article.