STAFF Q&A/Tracy Byford has worked for more than two decades to keep Penn’s botanical garden a place all can enjoy
“It is just such a surprise to see this on an urban campus.”
Today, plant scientists at Penn need high-tech tools to do their research. In 1897, all that botantists required was a plot of land where they could grow, collect, classify and study specimens gathered from around the world. Professor John T. McFarlane created a garden from waste ground and became an attractive addition to the University’s West Philadelphia domain.
The slightly more than two acres have no real research function anymore. Instead, the garden and its rock-lined pond provide relaxation therapy for harried students, a haven for West Philly residents and a truly civilized place where the cacophony of urban environment momentarily disappears—not to mention a refuge for a growing population of semi-domesticated wildlife. The garden’s chief caretaker, fierce protector and articulate advocate is Tracy Byford (C’79).
Q. You wear many hats—as manager of the Kaplan animal facility, the greenhouses and the James G. Kaskey Memorial Garden (a.k.a. the BioPond). Two years ago, you oversaw a major renovation of the BioPond. Are you happy with the result?
A. We got a lovely donation towards making this pond a lot more accessible, particularly for making it [wheelchair] accessible, and I am very grateful to the Kaskeys for it.
There is a gentleman in West Philly who comes here on a daily basis in a wheelchair. He is so happy that now he can get up to the pond and watch the ducks and turtles. Before, the paths were narrow and muddy and he could not really get close to the pond.
There are a lot of people who criticize what we did and say, “it looked so wild and natural…” But when we dug into it, we realized that in the center it was only two feet deep. It was completely silted in. We had to do something to stabilize the banks because water was coming over the banks on to the paths.
Q. How has it changed in the last two years?
A. I had hoped that we could soften the edges a little more. The plantings we put in have grown in a little better, but unfortunately, the duck population is so great for the space that they eat all the plants.
We didn’t have ducks years ago, and we had beautiful water lilies. Well, the ducks just love the tubers of the water lilies—it must be a delicacy for them and they eat them all. I can’t keep the ducks out. People really enjoy having the ducks, but at the same time the edges look really, really sparse I actually thought about getting plastic plants.
We are trying to work on something with our machine shop to create a device over the top [of a pot] that contains the plants. We are talking about trying to get a grid that a duckbill won’t go into, but a plant can grow out of.
Q. What else is living there?
A. There are a number of carp. Over the years, people have put turtles in the pond. There are 11 in there right now. I think they were probably pets that somebody didn’t want anymore. They seem quite happy.
Q. What is the water source for the pond?
A. It is city water, but there is a filtration system that was put in. The old pond wasn’t aerated and it tended to get really stagnant and in August it didn’t smell very good. This one has a waterfall. That was something in the design that I really wanted. It helps aerate, but there is also the sound of water. Sit by the waterfall—put your feet in. People enjoy that.
The water in the pond is the color of pea soup—which is probably for the best. Part of what you are seeing is actually the yellow fill on the bottom combined with the reflection of the blue sky.
This is a garden in a campus and many people come here to clear their heads and get away from whatever stress they are experiencing. We wanted to make the pond usable. It isn’t just a place where you walk around, see it and say “what a lovely thing,” but you can’t touch it.
Q. How long have you been responsible for the BioPond?
A. I was a biology major at Penn. I started here in 1979. There were parts that were a jungle—overgrown with weeds and briars and just not maintained at all. I just started re-doing things one thing at a time on a budget that was next to nothing. Then in 1988, the chair of the biology department approved a gardener’s position. Now we have a full-time gardener, Ann Dixon. The greenhouses have really become a resource for the flower gardens. Because we have a limited budget, we couldn’t afford to buy all the annuals we plant, so we grow them ourselves. We also like to put things out in pots to make the plaza areas look nicer. All those plants are tropicals and we [store] them [over the winter] in the greenhouses. Over the years, the better the garden looks, the more people think of it as a valuable asset. It is just such a surprise to see this on an urban campus.
Originally published on July 17, 2003