Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.
ABOUT DOUG CONLEY:
Doug believes public gardens grow communities through shared knowledge, authentic experiences, and uniting people; a philosophy that has fed his 30+ year career. He was introduced to public gardens as an undergraduate at Ferris State University and worked as a horticulturist for several years. As a curious kid and life-long learner, he returned to graduate school as a Longwood Fellow and earned a Museum Studies Certificate and a Master of Public Horticulture from the University of Delaware. For the past 18 years, Doug has held various public garden leadership roles while establishing The Gardens at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, modernizing the care of an historic Jens Jensen landscape at Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, and leading change at Toledo Botanical Garden. He currently serves as the Garden Coordinator for Matthaei Botanical Garden and Nichols Arboretum at the University of Michigan. Doug creatively identifies opportunities through curiosity, listening, and experiences leading diverse teams, conceiving and implementing projects, and fundraising for public gardens.
Doug believes public gardens grow communities through shared knowledge, authentic experiences, and uniting people; a philosophy that has fed his 30+ year career. He was introduced to public gardens as an undergraduate and worked as a horticulturist before returning to graduate school as a Longwood Fellow, earning a Master of Public Horticulture from the University of Delaware. For the past 18 years, Doug has held various public garden leadership roles while establishing a new university garden, modernizing the care of an historic landscape, and leading change at a cherished botanical garden. He is the Garden Coordinator for Matthaei Botanical Garden and Nichols Arboretum at the University of Michigan. Doug creatively identifies opportunities through curiosity, listening, and experiences leading diverse teams, conceiving and implementing projects, and fundraising for public gardens.
Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. Thanks for tuning in on Tuesdays to meet creative guests rooted in Washtenaw County and explore how their creative businesses, products, programs, and services impact and add to our local quality of life, place, and economy. I’m Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host for creative:impact. The perennial blossoming of the University of Michigan’s Peony Gardens is a sure sign of spring and the promise that summer is just around the corner. This year, though, there’s something more to celebrate as the Peony Garden turns 100 years old. Doug Conley, garden coordinator for the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens and the Nichols Arboretum, is here to tell us more about the history of the garden and what’s planned to mark the anniversary. Doug, welcome to creative:impact.
Doug Conley: Good morning and thank you for the opportunity, Deb. This is exciting.
Deb Polich: Yeah. So, I’m going to admit that gardening and landscape design is not my forte. I couldn’t keep a peony alive for one, let alone 100 years. You, though, are a horticulturalist, if I said that right, and, therefore, must have a green thumb. But before we get into the peony garden itself, what exactly is a horticulturalist?
Doug Conley: Yeah, yeah. I’m pleased to say that, you know, I’ve had a great career caring and tending to plants. Horticulture, when you break the word down, really is plant care. And it aligns with landscaping in a lot of situations, talking about ornamental plants. But it can be anything from, you know, vegetable gardening at your home patio and container gardening to caring for, you know, a large landscape planting collection like the peony garden. I’m also pleased to say that I have a pretty good green thumb, but what I really have is a short memory, and I’m very determined.
Deb Polich: That’s great. You know, a study from a few years back put gardening among people’s top five creative outlets. And, you know, I said I’m not very good at that, but I really do appreciate and am in awe of those able to use nature’s beauty and the color palette to create magnificent outdoor spaces for themselves and, in your case, public spaces. What drew you to this work?
Doug Conley: You know, I sort of found it by chance. I was a freshman at Ferris State University. I’ve been the lawn garden kid. And I was looking through the public, you know, course catalog. And I saw ornamental horticulture. I went and spoke to the professor, and it changed my career. He was a great influence on my path, introduced me to public gardening at Dow Gardens through an internship, and it has allowed me to say that my office has largely been a golf cart or a pushcart more than it’s been a cubicle, which is really great for me.
Deb Polich: Absolutely. You know, so I see gardens as kind of like living artworks. You know, they use color, composition, texture, and light. And, unlike a visual artist, though, who completes a work, you’re akin to a conductor orchestrating your gardens as they put on a different performance, both daily and throughout the seasons. To take that analogy a little bit further, the public garden audience also adds another layer. What, in your opinion, does the audience add to these public gardens?
Doug Conley: Oh, wow. For me, it’s everything. And two years of gardening without the public being present has been sometimes very complicated for someone who’s made, you know, the conscious choice and a career path out of tending spaces for public enjoyment. For me, I’ve had a lot of a-ha moments throughout my career, just as you watch people in awe of the beauty, exploring nature, having family outings and moments, proposals, scattering ashes. I mean, all of it has occurred in these public garden spaces that I’ve been a part of. And, if you think about it, it’s really humbling when you think about that role in someone’s life. I don’t always know the impact, but I do trust that it’s there.
Deb Polich: I bet you stumble upon moments all the time.
Doug Conley: It is. And those can be for humans as well as natural moments. I will share that when I was deciding to take this position three years ago, I was walking in the Arb, and I was in the valley, the main valley, and a hawk landed at the top of the tree. And I took that as a sign that I probably needed to accept this role and come work at the University of Michigan with the students in these great public spaces.
Deb Polich: Oh, that’s so great. We all need signs like that. 89 one WEMU continues with creative:impact. I’m Deb Polich. My guest is Doug Conley, garden coordinator for U of M’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens and the Nichols Arboretum, now celebrating the 100th year of the peony gardens. So, Doug, you know, the audience for the peony gardens every year is huge. But let’s go back to 100 years. How did the garden start, and what was intended back then?
Doug Conley: Well, I think, you know, Dr. Upjohn was an alumnus and an avid peony collector and thought that there was an opportunity to have, you know, a peony collection at the University of Michigan. And, as such, the garden was laid out. The 27 beds are as essentially the same location that they laid out 100 years ago. And it just became this opportunity to have this grand sort of science experiment and beautiful bloom at the same time.
Deb Polich: So, you said it’s laid out essentially as it was back 100 years ago. Has it worked in other ways, maybe by species, if that’s the right term, or different plantings?
Doug Conley: Yeah. Over time, there’s been cultivars added to the peony collection. But we do think this is a historic collection. So, I think all of our peonies have predate–1950, I think is the right time–in terms of when they were introduced to the trade. And 50 or 60 of those plants that are of the 800 that are there remain have been in those locations for 100 years.
Deb Polich: Does this garden compared to others, or is this one of a kind?
Doug Conley: This, in many ways, is one of a kind because the collection has been laid out 100 years ago. We we don’t dig and divide like a lot of peony gardens may because of the science that’s occurring in these locations, looking at genetics. So, we do minimal in terms of those kind of cultural practices at other peony gardens. And, again, we’re not introducing new cultivars that may be disease resistant. What we do in our garden is let them go. And, after the beautiful bloom, the great show in early June, they just sort of decline and recharge over the rest of the summer, and they get powdery mildew and some other diseases. And that’s all part of the process for us.
Deb Polich: Tending to your plants. I love this title “100 Years in Bloom: Celebrating the U of M’s Peony Garden’s Centennial.” What’s planned for to celebrate?
Doug Conley: Well, it’s just as a great opportunity, right, to reengage with our communities in a spectacular setting in the arboretum and is, you know, 800 plus plants all in bloom and the thousands of people who come. But also, we are preparing. We’re having an artist-in-residence who’s preparing a piece that will be performed. The Korean choir will participate. Peonies are native to Asia, and we’re having some other remarks and some pretty important opportunities to present on June 4th between one and three, including some big announcements that I can’t quite share.
Deb Polich: You’ll have to kill me if you tell us. So, actually, you know, all the beauty is there from the flowers, so you won’t really have to decorate. And, speaking of flowers, you probably don’t get too many bouquets sent to you for this kind of celebration, right?
Doug Conley: No, we don’t. And, you know, we appreciate any support that the community sends our way. But really what we’re looking for is folks to come in and enjoy the space. You know, there’s thousands of blooms that when the show is on, right, nobody sees anything else. The peony garden is just so enormous, and the display is so calmingly beautiful that a lot of other things sort of disappear, including the noise and maybe in your life as you really enjoy the space. So, you know, we’re excited that the peonies are coming up with the great weather recently. It’s just been amazing to watch them pop up.
Deb Polich: Well, we can’t wait to see it. Thanks for giving us a peek at the peony party, and thanks for being on the show.
Doug Conley: My pleasure. I look forward to seeing you in June.
Deb Polich: Absolutely. That’s Doug Conley, garden coordinator for the University of Michigan’s Mathaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, now celebrating the 100 years of the peony garden. Find out more about Doug and the peony garden, including some great photos at WEMU dot org. I’m Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and host of creative:impact. I invite you to join me again next Tuesday to meet another creative Washtenaw guest on this your community, NPR Radio Station 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.
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