Funded entirely by the generosity of friends of the College of Education, the work wrapped up just in time for the autumnal equinox.
Visitors can study, eat picnic lunches, wander the stepping stones or simply enjoy the sunshine and tranquility, says Betsy Hull, assistant to the dean in the College of Education. Faculty with small classes also are welcome to teach there for a change of scenery.
“It’s open to everyone,” Hull says, “and we hope that everyone uses it.”
The “Confluence Courtyard” began as an idea in February of 2015, when the former chair of the Department of Special and Early Education proposed turning the space into a “sensory garden.”
Barbara Schwartz-Bechet and Hull needed an expert in horticulture to guide them, however, and realized that resource was available at nearby Kishwaukee College.
What happened next came as a pleasant surprise.
Matt Ewert, an instructor at Kish who took their call, asked to see the space for himself. During his visit to NIU, Ewert mentioned that he taught a course in landscape design: Why not turn the courtyard planning into a class project?
Ewert’s Kishwaukee students “talk more about non-residential design” in the spring.
“This was a nice commercial project where we had an actual client, and we tried to make it as real as possible,” Ewert says.
“It was good for the students to be able to ask questions of someone and get that real-world experience. They had a budget. They had things to work through. They learned client communication skills. This was the first project where they could see that mattered on a larger scale. It took them a bit out of their comfort zone.”
Around that same time, however, the College of Education saw several administrative departures – Schwartz-Bechet among them – and the dream was shelved.
Understandably disappointed, Ewert still saw the potential for learning in the courtyard. He called Hull in January, wanting to know if his new students could undertake the project again, this time as no more than an assignment for his course. The courtyard’s confined space provided interesting challenges and opportunities, he explained.
New Dean Laurie Elish-Piper wanted more, however.
Elish-Piper liked the concept of garden transformation and was ready to turn that into reality, says Hull, who assembled a working group that included Greg Conderman, Dina Fowler, Dianne Fraedrich, Toni Tollerud and Pat Wielert.
“We told Matt, ‘Here’s the budget we have. If you can wow us again, we’ll put something into motion,’ ” she says. “His students gave us a very professional presentation. They did a nice job.”
Not wanting to choose one plan over another, the working group identified favorable elements from all of the student-designed landscapes. “We told Matt, ‘OK, now make us a plan that incorporates all of those,’ ” Hull says.
Ewert, who owns Plano-based Escapes Landscape Design Inc., did just that. NIU alum Ben Entas, owner of DeKalb-based Blue Hills Inc., was hired for the installation.
“Blue Hills did it just two days,” Ewert says. “It looks amazing. It’s a whirlwind of a difference.”
Moving forward, Ewert and his future horticulture and landscape design students will help the College of Education maintain the courtyard landscaping; they will come each fall to assist with clean-up and appropriate seasonal preparation.
Low-maintenance perennial plants were chosen to ease the upkeep, Hull says.
“They’ll get some pruning experience,” Ewert says. “They’ll also get to see how a landscape can grow up over different seasons, and the rate at which different plants mature.”
Courtyard hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. An Emergency Assistance Call Box is available in the courtyard if necessary to reach the NIU Police.