Where the peacocks and elephant play

Kalamazoo in Bloom brings Extension Master Gardeners and the general public together to create floral joy around Kalamazoo and Portage.

Elephant topiary in Bronson Park
Playful elephant in Bronson Park | Photo Credit: John Seward

In an undisclosed Kalamazoo location, peacocks, sea monsters, a sea horse, elephant, canoe, and more than 30 forest animals patiently wait for spring. Volunteers of all ages and abilities are also waiting – for the days in May they can bring their topiary friends out of storage and into the gardens they beautify around Kalamazoo and Portage.

Since 2003, Kalamazoo in Bloom (KIB), a nonprofit organization with a mission to beautify public spaces with locally grown plants and flowers, has brought Michigan State University Extension Master Gardeners, individuals from the community, and students together to plant the grounds in several locations. In Kalamazoo, KIB volunteers plant blooms in Bronson Park, the transportation center, city hall and county courthouse, Arcadia Festival Place, Kalamazoo Mall and an illuminated area along E. Michigan Avenue. These volunteers also plant and care for Library Lane and the city center in Portage.

“Each year, there is a three-week planting period in May that starts with our peacocks; huge structures made of steel that we actually plant,” former MSU Extension Advanced Master Gardener CJ Drenth said. “There are two peacocks in Kalamazoo; in Portage, we plant a canoe with little canoe dudes, and there’s a butterfly in addition – and that starts it all.”

Rabbit KIB
Robin resting on a rabbit | Photo Credit: John Seward

The animal topiary structures add fun to every bed and put the “zoo” in Kalamazoo in Bloom, according to Drenth. KIB purchases the topiaries from River Street Flowerland in Kalamazoo and creatively secures them in place to keep them from wandering off in such public spaces. After the topiaries are situated, the bedding plants are installed, and by the end of May all KIB areas are planted with an average of 25 different plant species.

“It gets harder every year. Last year, people said, ’wow this looks better than it’s ever looked before’ and I think uh-oh, I gotta go up another bar,” Drenth laughed.

With safe distancing practices in place, volunteers enjoy camaraderie while learning many aspects of planting from MSU Extension Master Gardeners. From site and soil preparation to plant selection and how to properly plant and water, Extension Master Gardeners welcome the opportunity to share their experience and knowledge.

“We like to pair Extension Master Gardeners with the general community who are volunteering with us,” KIB Executive Director Monika Trahe said. “We have a really touching story where we had an Extension Master Gardener coach along a blind person who came out to planting day with us. That young person had such a wonderful time and kept taking the bus to come out to the bed they helped plant and then told her family about it.”

Trahe said the KIB also relies on students from area high schools to help. “It’s a great educational opportunity for the students to have volunteering experience and to actually put their hands in the dirt – many kids don’t have that opportunity.”

KIB Planting Day
Planting Day | Photo Credit: John Seward

Hands in the dirt is just one of many ways to get involved with the KIB. Trahe said funding is always needed and welcomes volunteers with diverse backgrounds who may be interested in becoming board members with fund development or legal skills. The KIB board meets 5-6 times per year and during the pandemic, meets virtually.

“For all the Extension Master Gardeners who have not yet helped - it’s a lot of fun so come out and volunteer,” MSU Extension Advanced Master Gardener Judy Nichols said.

For Nichols and Drenth, not a planting or weeding day goes by without a community member stopping – sometimes while in their vehicles – with words of sincere appreciation for their work. Trahe mentioned she receives many emails and phone calls from community members expressing admiration for the creative flowerbeds. Realtors have told her the KIB efforts are a selling point for potential residents and business owners.

“I came to this position without a green thumb,” Trahe said. “I have learned so much from everybody around me and I continue to learn. There is a lot of buy-in with partner organizations and the generosity continues to amaze me. I am so grateful for our core group of volunteers – they are Kalamazoo in Bloom. Without them we would be struggling.”

Visit Kalamazoo in Bloom events or call 269-548-6232 for more information on how to volunteer. For more information on becoming an MSU Extension Master Gardener, contact your local MSU Extension county office or the MSU Extension Master Gardener website.

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