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Bob Grese photo
Nichols Arboretum director Bob Grese, at home in the Arb: “People often tell me I have one of the best jobs at the University, and I tend to agree.”

At Home in the Arb

Bob Grese, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture in the School of Natural Resources and Environment and Director of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, is possibly one of Ann Arbor’s most passionate champions of the natural beauty of the Nichols Arboretum, affectionately known as “the Arb.” “People often tell me I have one of the best jobs at the University, and I tend to agree. It’s challenging, but it’s also great fun and rewarding.”

Having served as the Arb director since 1999, Bob says that what satisfies him most about the work he does is: “I like to make things happen, to work with people from the community, provide facilities and places that people enjoy and value, and help in preserving some integrity to the natural environments that we steward. I also appreciate that the places I help to steward provide such restorative value to many people, particularly many of those from the hospital who are going through very difficult periods in their lives.”

“I’ve been at U-M since 1986—having come here as an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture in the School of Natural Resources. I grew up in Tennessee—was born in Memphis, and lived there until I was 6. I come from a large family of 11 kids and my father is a Lutheran minister. We moved to Chattanooga when I was going into first grade and we lived there until after my sixth grade. I’ve always thought that the woods and fields around our house and the hills and scenery around Chattanooga greatly affected my own love of nature.”

“My scholarly interests include landscape history—particularly the contributions of early designers who integrated ecology into their work, ecological restoration, community-oriented design, and children’s play environments.”

“I went to college thinking I wanted to be an architect, but after taking field botany classes and having a sophomore design studio focused on landscape, I decided to change careers to focus on landscape architecture. I finished out my undergraduate work at the University of Georgia, where I earned my BLA (Bachelor of Landscape Architecture), then worked for a short time in Atlanta; Easton, PA, and St. Louis, MO before deciding to go back to school for a masters degree. I earned my Master of Science in Landscape Architecture (MSLA) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984. After working as a teaching assistant at UW, I decided to give teaching a try and taught for two years at the University of Virginia. In 1986, I moved to Ann Arbor and U-M.”

A devotee of the Arb’s beauty in every season, Bob says he is especially partial to the Arb in autumn. “I particularly like the Arb in September and October. While I love the diversity of trees and their colors in the fall, the prairie is a truly magical place for me—mostly since I’ve studied and worked on it for years.”

Controlled burn photo
A controlled burn of the Dow Prairie: “Spring and fall prairie burning events are important landmarks for me,” explains Bob. “One of my proudest accomplishments has been the program of volunteers who have come out to help us care for our natural areas.”

This work has included, among other things, a program of carefully controlled twice-yearly burns of the Arb’s prairie areas to control non-native plant species growth and encourage the native prairie vegetation. Explains Bob: “Those spring and fall prairie burning events are important landmarks for me each year. I’ve been greatly pleased by the response of our native flora to our ongoing management. One of my proudest accomplishments has been the program of volunteers (many if not most of them students) who have come out to help us care for various collections, particularly our natural areas, over the past 10+ years.”

While partial to the Arb in the Fall, Bob says, “I also love the spring and early summer. Our rejuvenated shrub collection near Geddes has many trees and shrubs that bloom in the early spring—spiraea, lilac, crabapple, etc.—and each year it gets better. Our half-mile-long line of daffodils has also been great fun for people to explore. There are also wildflowers hidden throughout the Arb. I regard finding them as a bit of a treasure hunt.”

“In the early summer, the peony’s are dazzling and Heathdale is glorious when the rhododendron and azaleas are coming into bloom. And from midsummer on, our new Gateway Garden at the Washington Heights entrance is a wonderful display of colors and textures.”

Winter also holds special allure: “While our paths are icy, I also love the quiet beauty of winter—particularly in the main valley or prairie, or watching the river down at the riverfront. It’s easy to feel that you are miles away even though it’s just minutes from the denser parts of campus.”

Narcissus photo
Imagine/Align, a half-mile-long, linear planting of narcissus, involved a collaborative effort between the School of Art and Design, the Nichols Arboretum, and a host of community volunteers.

Asked to describe some of the most remarkable features of the Arb’s topography and ecology, Bob answers: “This glacier-shaped landforms—our hills and valleys—have always been a defining feature of the Arb and have been appreciated by each generation whether on sled or foot. Hopefully, we’re convincing more people to explore on foot these days! Because of the soils and topography, we have a diverse array of ecosystems/microhabitats for our various plant collections and natural areas. Much of the Arb was only minimally farmed if at all, and there is a rich diversity of native flora. The rich birdlife, particularly during spring and fall migrations, is also one of the hallmark features. Probably the most remarkable thing is that this occurs so close to very heavy development, and this creates one of our greatest challenges as well as being one of our greatest assets.”

“Among university arboreta, another feature that is unique to the Arb is that about one-quarter of the property is owned by the City of Ann Arbor, making us as much a community facility as a university facility. Our age—the Arb celebrates its 100th birthday in 1906—is also distinctive. We are also different than many university arboreta in that our university does not have a program in horticulture. While many other arboreta and botanical gardens are now creating a diverse array of partnerships and programs, this has long been an effort here—bridging to many units within the University.”

Describing the creative cross-pollination that has occurred as a result of this collaboration between the Arb and other disciplines, Bob explains: “Some of my most exciting memorable/rewarding experiences in the Arb have come from our various collaborations in recent years—the Shakespeare productions under the direction of drama instructor Kate Mendeloff, the Heathdale Dance Celebration under the direction of dance and music professors Jessica Fogel and Michael Gould, our Landscape Explorers program for children, and the Imagine/Align project initiated by School of Art alum Susan Skarsgaard.”