Growing with American authors

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott, | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published August 28, 2015

WEST BLOOMFIELD —  Walking into the West Bloomfield High School courtyard, students and staff will notice a change to the neglected space this school year.


After months of planning, English teacher Jennifer McQuillan, a group of student volunteers and community members began the first phase of the school’s new literary garden Aug. 19-21 and Aug. 24.


The garden is reportedly the first of its kind in the nation and will feature plants, flowers and trees cut from gardens belonging to famous American authors.

 Jennifer McQuillan, an English teacher at West Bloomfield High School, clears weeds from the area where the literary garden will be planted.

Jennifer McQuillan, an English teacher at West Bloomfield High School, clears weeds from the area where the literary garden will be planted.

Photo by Deb Jacques


“There are gardens in honor of people, but nothing where anyone has gathered American author cuttings to honor them,” McQuillan said.


Last fall, McQuillan applied for a grant for the literary garden through the West Bloomfield Education Foundation, which has in the past awarded McQuillan grants for her yoga sessions, which she tied into teaching transcendentalism — an American literary and philosophical movement that features authors like Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott.


“I always try to pick things that I enjoy doing because I think that increases my enthusiasm and is contagious. I like gardening, and I was trying to think how can I incorporate gardening with the classes.


“It occurred to me that I’ve been to most of these authors’ homesteads, and I thought, ‘Well, you know … a lot of them are associated with gardens, especially if you’re talking about the transcendentalists,’” McQuillan said.


McQuillan began asking various author homesteads if they would be interested in donating a plant cutting. So far, cuttings from 13 gardens have been confirmed connected with authors including Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Kurt Vonnegut. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library offered to sponsor the garden.


The Michigan Hemingway Society agreed to donate a mint plant that Ernest Hemingway mentions in two of his stories. The plant grows along a road that leads to Horton Bay, McQuillan said. The garden will also feature lemon balm from Sophia Hawthorne’s kitchen garden, ivy from Poe’s mother’s grave and a magnolia tree that was a sapling when Fitzgerald lived in Alabama. Local flowers, like daisies, will also be planted as symbols of literary works. Though the plants haven’t arrived yet, they are expected to be delivered before the frost, McQuillan said.


Aaron Strager, a senior at the high school, said that when he heard about the garden, he knew he wanted to participate.


“What we would do in class sometimes is we would go out to the tennis courts and just start talking. … Our teacher likes to talk about how sitting within the four walls … kind of reduces your view on the world,” Strager said, adding that he hopes classes will use the garden to explore and form a connection between the books they are reading and the authors.


But other classes can also enjoy the fruits of the volunteers’ labor, he said. Science classes, for example, will be able to study the plants.


“It’s really nice to see a lot of students show a devotion to the class. … Miss McQuillan works really hard on these things and tries to make a lasting impact on the school,” Strager said.


The garden is multidisciplinary in that different departments can take advantage of it. For instance, the environmental science class volunteered to test the soil during the school year, McQuillan said.


“We really want to make it something the kids feel invested in no matter what class they’re taking. We’re hoping (the garden) spreads, because right now there isn’t much going on (in the courtyard),” McQuillan said.


McQuillan would like to incorporate contemporary and Detroit-based authors in the future.


Another senior student volunteer, Supriya Gupta, said she got involved with the project not only as a requirement of Earth Club, but also because she grew up loving science and biology.


“I just came and showed up with my wheelbarrow,” Gupta said, adding that she would love to “weed and water” throughout the school year.


When Gupta first heard about the garden, she didn’t realize they were using actual cuttings from authors’ gardens.


“I didn’t think that was possible, but (McQuillan) managed,” Gupta said. 


McQuillan is still waiting to hear from a list of authors for additional cuttings, but she said that what the garden will become comes down to money. With the help of grants and monetary donations, McQuillan hopes to include a walking path and mosaic tiles on which students can write their favorite American author quotes.


Monetary donations are still being accepted. The West Bloomfield High School website has a list of directions on how to donate through PayForIt. Literary organizations or anyone looking to make donations other than monetary can email McQuillan at Jennifer.McQuillan@wbsd.org.


For more information about the literary garden, visit www.waldenatwestbloomfield.blogspot.com.