Set among towering pines and surrounded on all sides by lush native greenery, Eastern Arizona College (EAC) Payson campus is a natural wonderland in its own right. But have you seen the newly landscaped front garden or the xeriscaped courtyard lately? Whether coming for another dose of lifelong learning or just out for a Sunday drive, the efforts of some dedicated volunteers are worth a “smell the roses” visit.

Swing by and let your senses be drawn in by the many low-water-use plants from native grasses to flowers of many colors, including the school’s yellow and purple, to herbaceous rosemary, to a 20-foot shade tree. The visit will be worth your time.

A welcoming entry to any campus can help shed the stresses of daily life before you ever step inside the classroom. Dean Pam Butterfield knew this and saw great potential in beautifying the gateway to the campus. Right outside the admissions office was a neglected garden area that consisted of a mound of dirt and rock overgrown with Bermuda grass, vinca vines and the vestiges of a long-ago overhaul.

Butterfield asked Marion Grill, who has expertly maintained the magnificent central courtyard at the college about reworking the site, and she in turn mentioned it to Rich Johnson, local Master Gardener. After surveying the garden plot, Johnson thought it would be a good project for the combined efforts of the High Country Garden Club and UA Gila County Master Gardener Program. With that, the hunt was on for volunteers.

In February 2020, volunteers Steve Shields, Cathy Babcock, Dan and Dorothy Howell, Eileen Lawson, Martha Teubner, Rich and Denise Johnson attended a series of committee meetings to create a plan for the site. They submitted design ideas, reviewed possible plant selections, and considered the challenges the project might face.

An existing shade tree, light pole, and wooden bench were welcome objects to work around. The goal was a design that would be attractive in all four seasons, require minimal water and be resilient to our ubiquitous mammoth pest, the elk.

Steve Shields, local landscape designer, was instrumental in narrowing our plant choices. Rocks would be an integral part of the new scheme, and Eileen Lawson agreed to design and install that part of the plan. A small pseudo-path of flagstone was agreed upon by all, but was struck down after realizing that the garden area was just too small for it. In the end, the shaded bench was removed from the design despite its utility in offering much needed relief from the sun.

Butterfield required that the plants be purchased from Plant Fair Nursery, which we happily did since owner Glen McCombs has been so helpful to the community and our clubs. Shopping for approved plants was a breeze with Kathy Shaw’s help at the nursery.

By March the dean approved the design plan and groundwork began. Nine energetic and quite knowledgeable volunteers, including all of the above helpers along with Steve Ridings and Susan Nafziger, both Master Gardener candidates, cleared the area to create their blank slate. They removed 150 rocks, give or take, and a lot of weeds.

Rain delays and then the COVID-19 pandemic brought things to a screeching halt until May. But this group wouldn’t be deterred. Caution and attention to social distancing guidelines brought the hands-on labor down to four members. Irrigation lines were run, and the planting began. A variety of grasses, perennials, and bulbs provided an array of colors.

Over the next few months a handful of plants would be lost, but then replanted with more suitable substitutions. As these plants grow, they will fill in the sparse areas and present a year-round multi-color palette of drought tolerant foliage.

Lifelong learning is a goal shared by the EAC campus, the High Country Garden Club, and the UA Gila County Master Gardener program. Signs identifying each type of plant in the garden reflect that, and their installation completed the seven-month project.

The newly renovated nature area now warmly welcomes all.

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