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The greening of AASU
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Imagine planting 2,000 to 3,000 narcissus and hyacinth bulbs a year. Now think about caring for more than 150 species of trees and more than 300 species of shrubs.

That’s how many plants are growing on the grounds of Armstrong Atlantic State University, thanks to the efforts of Grounds Superintendent Philip Schretter and his staff.

When Schretter first arrived at AASU, there wasn’t a lot of diversity found among the flora on campus. “A college doesn’t have to be all hollies,” he says.

“One of my first goals was to increase the diversity on campus,” Schretter says. “One way we did that was to plant unusual plants, uncommon plants, and use them in landscape settings.”

There have been several construction projects on the campus, which has aided Schretter in his efforts. “As buildings were being built, it provided the opportunity to put in plants,” he says.

Today, the 250-acre campus is blooming. The campus itself was designated as an arboretum in 2001, and several additions are being made to this Garden of Eden.

“Some people wondered why we weren’t going to call ourselves a botanical garden,” Schretter says. “Botanical gardens are a little more formal. Usually, an arboretum is a lot more informal and could entail the entire campus.”

The International Garden currently is under construction in the 37,500-square foot area between Solms and Hawes halls. When completed, the garden will include plazas representing the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and South America.

Trees, shrubs and ornamental plants native to each continent will be planted around the plazas. Winding walkways will connect each of the separate gardens, which will have benches, decorative lighting and fountains.

The brick walkways were completed early in the project. The AASU Compass Rose, the university’s logo, was worked into the brickwork at the south entrance of the garden.

The project recently received a boost in the form of a $10,000 donation. The Mary Allen Lindsey Branan Foundation, which is managed by Wachovia Wealth Management, announced the donation in March.

“Wachovia, as trustee for the Mary Allen Lindsey Branan Foundation, is pleased to show its support for Armstrong Atlantic through the awarding of this grant,” says Beverly Blake, senior vice president of Wachovia Charitable Services Group. “Combined with gifts from others, the new International Garden will enhance the campus and the learning environment at the university.”

“The International Garden will be a gathering place for the Armstrong Atlantic community and will encourage school children and community organizations to visit the arboretum to learn about the cultural, economic and historical importance of plants from around the world,” says Thomas Z. Jones, president of AASU.

The European Plaza will be completed during the first phase of construction. The focal point of the garden, it will be the largest plaza at 1,000 square feet.

Designed as a Victorian-era garden, the European Plaza will have a tiered amphitheater with seating for 150, plus an 18-foot gazebo. The plaza should be completed by this fall.

The African Plaza will have a Moroccan-style fountain surrounded by date palms. Olive trees and other plants native to Africa and the Mediterranean will be planted there.

The Asian Plaza will be patterned after a Japanese garden and will feature a tea house, stone lanterns and square stepping stones. Because Asian plants grow well in Coastal Georgia, it will feature the widest variety and number of plants of all the plazas.

The South American plaza will feature stonework that will mimic Machu Picchu. “The Australian plaza is still up in the air,” Schretter says. “We will be making decisions about what we are going to do there over time. One thing the administration insisted on was that the International Garden be a functional area.”

In the past, even the most unique plants in the campus arboretum were displayed much as more common landscape plants might be -- as shrubs, screens and hedges -- to show how they could be incorporated into the landscape.

Last spring, plant collections were introduced to the campus. In a plant collection, plants are grouped together because of their botanical relationship or linked because of their appearance and history.

A few plant collections had already been established, including the Conifer Garden, which is near the Administration Building. It contains more than 50 varieties of conifers ranging from ground cover to trees.

Three new plant collections were added last fall. They are the Fern Collection, the White Garden and the Ginger Collection.

The Fern Collection, located on the west side of Jenkins Hall, features 23 varieties of native and non-native ferns. The White Garden, located behind the Administration Building, contains plants with white flowers or white variegated foliage.

The Ginger Collection was planted at the south end of Hawes Hall and features seven groups of ginger plants. Best known as a spice, edible ginger is one of about 1,300 species of ginger -- 40 of which can now be seen at AASU.

“Ginger is well-known because it is used for cooking,” Schretter says. “Other species are used for medicinal purposes. Some are used as ornamentals, and one is used as an aphrodisiac.”

The Camellia Species Collection was developed near the fountain in the center of campus. Brick sidewalks and seating areas are being incorporated into this collection.

Other collections are planned for the near future. The Primitive Garden will feature vascular plants, which are among the earliest known land plants.

“When plants in the ocean were floating around, they didn’t have any support structure,” Schretter says. “They had water all around them to support them.

“When they wanted to get on land, things had to change,” he says. “Vascular plants did not have flowers, so they reproduced by spores.”

Vascular plants include horsetails and ferns. The next stage of evolution introduced plants that reproduced through seeds but did not flower, including pine and gingko trees.

Flowering plants were the last to appear. “They are all descended from primitive plants,” Schretter says.

The Primitive Collection will include interpretive displays that will explain the progression of land plants from reproduction by spores to reproduction by flowers.

A Native Flora Garden will be located behind University Hall and will include a freshwater wetland area. A boardwalk will be constructed through the wetland area to connect Ashmore and University halls.

The Ethnobotanical Collection will feature plants used for food, fiber, medicine and tools. The major periods of human history in this area will be displayed, beginning with the Paleo-Indian period from 9500 to 7900 B.C.

The Physic Garden will be divided into four time periods -- the early Greek and Roman herbalist, the 16th and 17th centuries, the 18th and 19th centuries and the 20th and 21st centuries.

Much thought is put into the types of trees, shrubs and plants that are planted in particular areas. For example, the landscaping around the new Science Center was designed to require minimal maintenance, yet have a large diversity of plants that is visually appealing.

The area around Solms Hall is hot and dry, so plants with thorns -- which prefer hot, arid places -- are being planted there. There also are trial beds near Lan Library where plants are grown on an experimental basis to see how well they do in this climate.

“That gives us the opportunity to try things nobody else in Savannah has tried,” Schretter says. “It’s just amazing. We never run out of plants. The campus has grown so much, I could put plants anywhere.”

Eventually, there will be brochures to help visitors on campus identify the plants. “The first step is getting the plants in the ground,” Schretter says.

“I’ve been here almost 11 years,” he says. “My ultimate responsibility is to keep things blooming.”

As grounds superintendent, Schretter makes the final decision of what is to be planted in each collection. “But I couldn’t do it without my staff,” he says. “I have a wonderful group of people working with me.”

Visitors are always welcome to wander around the campus and enjoy the many collections. But don’t just help yourself. Schretter does ask that visitors obtain permission before taking cuttings or seeds.

Even though he loves all plants, he does have favorites. “I like plants with stories behind them,” Schretter says.

“I have to say, I really like the Conifer Collection,” he says. “I think it could be really spectacular in about 10 years when some of the trees get a size to them.”