College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

Sesquicentennial Garden dedicated in honor of family

A new garden in the University of Illinois Arboretum celebrates the 150-year history of the university, while commemorating family memories.

As a student, Jo Ellyn Downey (Media ’66) would walk down Lincoln Avenue to enjoy the serenity of the University of Illinois Arboretum. She often thought it would be lovely to, someday, have a bench with her name on it, similar to others seen throughout the arboretum. Flowers and gardens have always been a source of comfort and peace to Downey, who now resides in California, says Marise Robbins-Forbes, ACES Director of Development.

As Downey later raised a young family in Champaign-Urbana, the arboretum became a source of many hours of family fun and reflection. They have fond memories of time spent in the open green spaces and sledding on the Orchard Downs hill.


On Friday, October 13, the University of Illinois dedicated the Sesquicentennial Garden. This garden, which is situated between the University President’s House and the Miles C. Hartley Selections Garden, is far more than a bench Jo Downey had once pondered gifting to the arboretum. In remembrance of the many family memories made in the arboretum, Downey provided a gift to establish this new garden in honor of her children – Jay Downey of Champaign, Jill Williams of California, and Jennifer Wirtz of Glenview, and her six grandchildren – John, Rebecca, Ashleigh, Michael, Jake, and Kate.

The idea of the garden gift emerged during discussions between Jo Downey and University of Illinois Foundation Gift Planning staff and ACES representatives. Retired professor Terry Harkness developed the original concept for the garden in this location. Alumnus Ryan Kettelkamp of Kettelkamp and Kettelkamp (Chicago) created the landscape designs. Construction began in fall 2016.

The four-season garden features perennials, flowering trees, and shrubs, which all complement the annual plants featured in the Hartley Garden. The garden is an elliptical shape, centered on an oval lawn and divided into four beds, which are cut by walkways that carry visitors to the heart of the garden, explains Kevin McSweeney, arboretum director. A few more contemporary elements include an off-center axis, an “origination point” marked by a bronze disc, and a diagonal pathway leading to it.

Many additional alumni and friends provided gifts of materials, labor, and funds for the new garden. Elite Growers and Midwest Groundcovers, Chicago-area companies operated by alumni Melissa Conroy, John Wachter, and Christa Orum-Keller, provided plants. Alumnus Greg Oltman of Gro Horticultural Enterprises delivered materials to campus. A committee of industry professional provided guidance for the project, Robbins-Forbes says.

The creation of the garden also created a learning opportunity for five arboretum student interns, who installed over 5,000 perennials, McSweeney explains.



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