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Cornellians plan historic gardens for Harriet Tubman home

A collaborative project involving the Cornell Plantations and Cornell landscape architecture students focuses on planting for the future while preserving the past. Plantations staff and summer interns from Cornell have been creating plans for new gardens at the historic Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, N.Y.

Irene Lekstutis, landscape architect at Cornell Plantations, and students Daisy Chinburg '13, Robert Doerflinger '13 and Ethan Dropkin '13 met with Christine Carter of the Harriet Tubman Home several times this summer to discuss developing period appropriate planting plans and a master plan for future development of the property. Carter and her colleagues want to create gardens that Tubman (1857-1913) would have grown in Auburn.

The project, said Lekstutis, gives the students a real-world project with an opportunity to listen the client's needs and deliver a plan that was relevant to the client's budget and wish list.

Normally, Plantations' landscape architecture and horticulture interns work in the botanical gardens, arboretum or natural areas as needed. "We really lucked out this summer," said Chinburg. "It's been great to have the opportunity to learn more about Harriet Tubman, while practicing landscape design skills."

As part of the project, the interns perused old nursery catalogs and books on historic gardens in Mann Library to become familiar with herbaceous and woody plants commonly grown in gardens and landscapes of late 19th and early 20th centuries. By summer's end, the interns had a planting plan for the brick residence on the Tubman site.

This fall Chinburg and Dropkin are continuing their involvement in the project through independent studies. Their goal is to develop a contemporary planting design, using period appropriate plants for the house that also served as the Tubman Home for the Aged.

Chinburg is working on a cultural landscape report under the guidance of Associate Professor Sherene Baugher, landscape archeologist and preservationist at Cornell. The report will describe the research and methodology of the teams' work on this historic landscape and serve to inform the long-term master plan for bringing the history of the site "to life" for the general public.

"The project provides a variety of unusual learning opportunities as it includes not only a design element but also research of historical landscapes and planting palettes that we undertook on site as well as in the Bailey Hortorium Library," said Dropkin. "Both the Harriet Tubman Home and more so the L.H. Bailey Hortorium are relatively local resources that I doubt many Cornell students are aware of. However they are immense reservoirs of historical data."

As part of his independent study project, Dropkin is completing the garden designs. He's using a period appropriate plant palette to create gardens that evoke the period and provide multiseason interest for visitors and staff.

Billy Kepner is the marketing coordinator at the Cornell Plantations.

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Claudia Wheatley