Schenectady County

Jackson’s Garden a peaceful retreat at Union College

When the sun is shining, Union College students and faculty grab a snack and relax on the outdoor pa
Connie Schmitz, the Union College campus gardener, poses in Jackson's Garden.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Connie Schmitz, the Union College campus gardener, poses in Jackson's Garden.

Climb high, climb far

Your goal the sky

Your aim the star

— Inscription at the gate to Jackson’s Garden

“The Earth laughs in flowers,” the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote.

And we all know that flowers and plants can lift our spirits or calm a jittery mind.

That must be what mathematician Isaac Jackson was thinking in 1830, when he planted a garden on the campus of Union College in Schenectady.

“Jackson was having health issues,” says Connie Schmitz, the campus gardener and landscape specialist.

“Eliphalet Nott, the college president, told him ‘why don’t you start a garden? It always helped me.’ ”

This spring, 182 years after Jackson first turned the earth along the gurgling Hans Goote Kill, the flowers and trees of Jackson’s Garden are doling out their medicine once again.

“It’s amazing how many people use this garden,” says Schmitz.

“I find faculty, staff and local folks all over the garden. A lot of kids are studying there in May and June.”

Employees from Golub Corp. on Nott Street walk through the garden on their lunch hour.

When the sun is shining, students and faculty grab a snack in the Reamer Center and relax on the outdoor patio overlooking an eight-acre paradise filled with hundreds of perennials.

While the garden is not a secret, it’s mostly hidden from view, lying low along the creek, beyond the statue of Chester Arthur and behind an ornate black iron gate.

Jackson’s Garden is the oldest cultivated garden on an American college campus, growing about seven decades before Yale University’s famed Marsh Botanical Garden and the gardens at Princeton.

When the 1973 movie “The Way We Were” starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford was filmed on campus, the garden made an appearance; and according to legend, it is haunted by a teen-age ghost named Alice who only appears on the first full moon of the summer. Last fall, the garden was named a “certified wildlife habitat” by the National Wildlife Federation.

Garden tour

On a recent sunny day, Schmitz offered The Gazette a tour, and it began under an 80-foot-tall ginkgo that may have been planted by Jackson.

Five feet in diameter, with rough light-colored bark and inch-long round leaf buds that stud its wide branches like teeth, it’s a male tree that doesn’t produce fruit.

In the early 1990s, when the garden’s other ginkgo was cut down, 125 rings were counted on the trunk, according to Schmitz.

Under the ginkgo, flower beds and foot paths follow the same design created by Jackson.

In early May, a blanket of scilla, tiny drooping bells of purplish-blue, cover the beds.

By early June, peonies will flaunt their frilly pinks and magentas, and with more than 100 of them, they have become an annual attraction. Some of the three-foot-tall “tree peonies,” may be Jackson’s, planted a century-and-a-half ago.

“Every two weeks the garden is different,” says Schmitz. “The colors and schemes change. You can wander in and it’s a different garden.”

Following in Jackson’s footsteps, we check out the Thyme Garden, with 12 varieties of the herb arranged in a clock pattern, a sundial set at its center.

“This is the Evergreen Garden,” Schmitz says, stopping in a grassy patch where a Colorado Spruce, a Japanese Umbrella Pine, junipers and yews grow without pruning.

“I’m letting it go au natural,” she says.

Farther down the trail, in the Wildflower Garden, bright yellow coltsfoot has already popped up.

“A lot of coltsfoot, daffodils and tulips” is what you’ll see for Mother’s Day, Schmitz predicted more than week ago.

“The spirea may start to bloom. We might have a few leaves on the trees. We may see some Virginia blue bells.”

When the path turns and descends, one can see the rock-strewn Hans Groote Kill up close.

“Down here is an Asian garden. You can hear the sound of the water. It was designed and installed by students,” says Schmitz.

Here, heart-shaped columbine leaves peek out of ground, and soon many kinds of ferns will unfold their delicate greenery.

Truck is office

Schmitz, who has worked as the only gardener and landscape specialist for the entire campus for 22 years, doesn’t have an office.

“I work out of my truck,” the Schenectady resident says, pointing to a grey Ford pickup laden with rakes and other tools.

It’s a year-round job: plowing snow, chopping ice and trimming trees in winter; leaf-clearing and planting in the spring; cultivating, weeding, edging and mulching other times of the year.

A Long Island native, Schmitz has been a gardener for 37 years.

In the 1970s, she studied animal husbandry at SUNY Cobleskill, then returned to the college in 1988 to earn a horticulture degree.

After college, she took jobs at retail nurseries and learned about a wide variety of plants and then started her own business, Legend Landscaping.

Schmitz’s biggest challenge in caring for Jackson’s Garden is “creating the time to do all I really want to do in it. There is so much potential.”

But every spring and summer, when the flowers are blooming, she is inspired by her surroundings.

I love to grow things, and I think there’s a little bit of an artist in me. I like to create different palettes,” she says.

“The colors, the smells, the textures are so different from one end of the garden to the other.”

Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or [email protected]

Categories: Life and Arts, News

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