The Grand Garden Experiment

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Published on: May. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 29, 2010

Nestled in the foothills west of St. Louis lies a multifaceted jewel. Shaw Nature Reserve, maintained by the Missouri Botanical Garden since 1925, comprises 2,400 acres of prairie, oak-hickory woods, floodplain, riparian forests, dolomite glades, woodlands, savannas and marsh wetlands.

The early 1900s were years of great advances in industry for the city of St. Louis, yet the resulting coal smoke and other pollution caused area plant species to suffer. In response, Shaw Nature Reserve (known as Shaw Arboretum until its 75th anniversary in 2000) was established.

The Civilian Conservation Corps became involved in the mid-1930s and cleared miles of trails throughout the reserve. Trees were planted, orchards and pastures were cultivated, and the land was farmed, all in an attempt to study self-reliance and solid land-use practices. Natural forests and wildflowers were allowed to regenerate in noncultivated areas of the reserve.

Shaw Nature Reserve is an experiment that has gained momentum for the past 80 years. Land-use practices such as controlled burning and watershed control evolved alongside environmental awareness and educational outreach. The thread that ties these diverse practices together is the study of human land use.

“You can’t take the human element out of the natural ecosystem,” says John Behrer, director of Shaw Nature Reserve. “Humans have been manipulating Missouri’s landscape for the last 12,000 to 15,000 years.” He explains that the diverse natural communities in Missouri adapted over thousands of years with direct human interaction.

“If our goal is to maintain a high level of biological diversity on Missouri’s natural areas, human interaction and management must continue,” says Behrer. “Fire management, control of invasive exotics, and selective forest management practices are all examples of the ongoing interactions that are needed.”

Management is vital to the success of the reserve’s restored prairies, woodlands, glades and wetlands; however, public access is vital to the success of the reserve itself. It is the connection visitors make to these ecosystems that impacts thousands of lives each year and keeps this experiment current and exciting.

On any given day, school children, bird watchers, wildflower enthusiasts, artists and families may gather at the reserve. They are all seeking the same thing: a pristine environment in which to connect with nature. Shaw Nature Reserve has the resources and attractions to fulfill that desire.

The Bascom House

The Bascom House opened to the public in the spring of 1996. Restoration work on the Italianate-Victorian home incorporates recycled newspapers for insulation and a highly efficient geothermal

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