April 11 2012 12:00 AM

After seasonal cutbacks, city looks for help at Cooley Gardens


Brett Kaschinske was hustling through a round of meetings April 2 when he pulled his orange truck next to the early spring green of Cooley Gardens.

Unlike the downtown cubicle refugees who steal an hour of sanity in Cooley’s cool pines and flowerbeds, Lansing’s parks and recreation director was still working. In suit and tie, he started pulling weeds, picking up trash and tugging at storm-downed branches. 

“This grass is really thick,” he said.

Lansing’s hidden treasure suddenly needs a lot of love. This year, Kaschinske said the parks department would be left with 29 seasonal employees, down from over 50 last year.

He said his staff is “still working out” how best to allot shrinking resources among Lansing’s 115 parks and 10 miles of River Trail.

“We have over 2,000 acres of parkland to maintain, but shuttering Cooley is not on the table,” he said. “We’re looking for volunteers to deal with the issues out there, planting, weeding, et cetera.”

To put a “rush” on the requisition, Michigan’s warmest March on record has suddenly thrust the garden into mid-May form. By the first week of April, the magnolias were shedding their petals and Cooley’s fabled bed of magnificent old peonies was forming buds a month ahead of schedule.

“We didn’t expect to be cutting grass in March,” Kaschinske said.

But Cooley Gardens is not your average mow-and-move-on city park.

If Frances Park, the manorial sprawl of pavilions and lawns overlooking the Grand River, is the crown jewel of the city’s park system, Cooley is the hidden gem. There are frequent weddings and public events here, but the place is best suited for solitary respites and romantic lunches. “This is more for the purist,” Kaschinske said.

Built and planted from 1938 to 1942 with money from Lansing industrialist Eugene F. Cooley, the gardens gracefully pack a lot of variety into less than an acre. There are cottage-y nooks, formal beds of perennials and annuals, shady corners, winding side paths and grand vistas.

Most important, Cooley is an oasis in a post-industrial plain of concrete, surrounded by Interstate 496 to the north and the parking lot of the former Oldsmobile plant to the west and south. Even the nearby Three Sisters, the towering smokestacks of the Eckert Power Plant visible for miles around the city, seemed to disappear when Kaschinske stepped down into the sunken annual bed. “You come down here and it’s a different world,” he said.

Soon that annual bed will need filling.

“It changes and it moves all the time,” gardener Eric Stinson said. “You really can’t leave it alone for very long.”

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Stinson tended the gardens full time, often with the help of two interns, but he retired in 2010. In the garden’s heyday, from 1942 up to the early 1960s, Stinson said, up to four full-time staffers kept the gardens going, with three to five seasonal laborers.

In 1984, after a period of neglect, a support group, Friends of Cooley Gardens, formed and Stinson came on board full time during the summer until 1995, when he went to full-time, year-round work. In the 1990s, the Friends held a yearly plant sale to help buy plants and pay outside help. Stinson credits forestry manager Paul Dykema (“He has the heart of a gardener.”) with committing city funds to help.

“The parks department has been taking hits for as long as I can remember,” Stinson said. “When I started, it took 30 minutes for everybody to punch out in the afternoon.”

In addition to beating the bushes for volunteers, Kaschinske is reaching out to MSU’s Master Gardener program for more expert guidance. However, Stinson insisted that any plans to keep Cooley in form without “very serious backup” are “not realistic.”

Stinson said the Gardens need a “businesslike and capable Friends group” like the Fenner Conservancy, which runs a robust array of educational programs and events at Fenner Nature Center on the city’s east fringe.

“The Friends of Cooley are pretty much on ice now,” Stinson said. “We have $4,000 in the bank and four or five well-intended people who don’t have the business skills to make that kind of robust organization real,” he said, including himself in that description. “We’re really not players anymore.”

Kaschinske said the parks department is looking for a “different model” of operations.

“We don’t have the budget to maintain the quality we once had, but we’re still trying to maintain the gardens,” Kaschinske said. “They’re still beautiful.”

Kaschinske paused to straighten out an ornamental conifer that had bent double in the winter, getting a face full of needles for his trouble, when he spotted a van in the parking lot.

“There’s somebody over there,” he said.

A cloud of white hair could be seen vigorously bobbing up and down over the top of a sunken garden wall. 

“That’s Beulah,” Kaschinske said.

Lansing’s hidden treasure has its own hidden treasure: century-old Scott Sunken Gardens, a small stone-walled sanctuary where Beulah Voorheist, 83, has worked as a volunteer for 20 years.

She worked her way through the beds with a narrow rake designed to catch leaves and trash without harming young plants. The rake was also good for leaning.

“I’m achin’ all over, but I got a few things done,” she said. “We need to move some things. We need some men out here.”

A car-sized tree limb, partially downed by last week’s high winds, was hanging from a splinter and sinking into the garden. Voorheist’s native politeness was clearly at war with her impatience.

“It’s blocking the tulips,” she said. 

Kaschinske told her the crew would take care of it.

“What are you going to do, with this early spring?” she asked Kaschinske.

“We’re looking for help.”

“Good. Working here is good for the soul. Well, if you like flowers.”