Home > About > GBG
Creativity in a small space, Wofford’s new secret garden

One of the 20th century’s most popular children’s stories was Frances Hodson Burnette’s “The Secret Garden,” where a group of young friends in Edwardian England found peace and shelter among growing things.

When Wofford’s environmental studies program settled into the Sam O. Black Building last year, several professors looked at its bleak and virtually abandoned courtyard and recalled Burnette’s novel. Today, their vision of a “secret garden” has become reality.

The story began when Katherine Aul ’10 took on the challenge of reworking the courtyard. The project fit perfectly with an academic background and interests that led her into the prestigious master’s in landscape design program at Columbia University.

“As one might expect at a university in New York City, the Columbia program focuses on smaller-scaled projects,” Aul says. “It won’t pigeonhole me in the career world, and it allows room to learn about collaboration with artists, sculptures, architects and planners. The program also emphasizes drafting skills, both by hand and on design software. I’m confident that this particular master’s degree will expand my creativity into an exciting new realm.

“My Black Building project definitely seemed daunting at first,” she continues. “The courtyard had fallen into terrible disrepair, but I was comforted in knowing that the space probably could not look any worse. I started by imagining a blank canvass with a large dogwood tree in the center and three shubs within the borders. I researched plans that would be suitable in partial sunlight as well as our zone and soil type.”

Aul says she chose the plants in the garden from a list of readily available, shade loving, drought resistant, evergreen perennials so the secret garden would be interesting, familiar and beautiful all year. Then, she started digging, using a pick-ax to break up the packed and parched earth floor. From among the ferns she chose autumn, ostrich and asparagus. To balance the preexisting shrubs, she planted coral bells, Confederate jasmine, Siberian iris, a gardenia, and a variegated hydrangea. She added hostas and herbs for ground cover.

Aul says she was surprised at how much her plans changed during the development process. “I knew that this would not be a simple project, but I learned boatloads about horticulture, soil and design. I found that the process was very enthralling and came naturally to me. Still, everything took longer than I thought it would. I found that I had to create a drainage system to deal with some gutters, so I tried my hand at engineering for a day. Also, I had a terrible time extracting a bush that didn’t fit into my design, so I decided to go back and incorporate more of the existing shrubs into a revised plan.”

As the garden took shape, environmental studies faculty members John Lane ’77 and Dr. Kaye Savage looked at the stark white walls above the fresh new green space and knew that something more had to be done. They called on Hub-Bub artist-in-residence Esteban del Valle to talk about the possibility of a mural project for the courtyard. “We came up with the idea of a history of environmentalism depicting some of the movement’s key figures: Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carlson, and the Indian environmental artist and philosopher Vandana Shiva,” Lane says. “Esteban suggested adding a Native American element. He worked on campus almost every day in June and July until the mural was completed.”

“I thought the unusual space would work well as a place where there was a sense of history, a place to hang out and tell stories,” Esteban says. During a summer of ecological disaster across the Gulf of Mexico, he chose for one of his images an oil-covered bird. Many who visit the garden ask Esteban whether the feathered figure is tragic (a pelican) or heroic (a phoenix). “I want to leave interpretation up to the viewer. Maybe that question will become a topic for student essays,” he says.

“I also tried to create a sense of the natural cycle — sunrises and sunsets, and water flowing downhill from the mountains to the sea. I’m happy with the way things turned out.”
Esteban says that Wofford’s secret garden was just one of several large-scale projects he was encouraged to create in Spartanburg. “It’s not very often that an artist is given so much freedom to bring people in to a common, creative space. For me, the Hub City turned out to be a warm and welcoming community and an amazing experience.”

Always an enthusiast for quiet outdoor spaces for study and informal gatherings involving professors and students, President Benjamin B. Dunlap applauds what Katherine Aul and Esteban del Valle have done at the Sam O. Black Building. He hopes that their secret garden will become a model for the enclosed green spaces that are tucked here and there around the campus.

by Doyle Boggs ’70