July 25, 2006
Students from Mike Collins' botany class at Reeds Spring High
School have been working with Joe and Cathy Wolven to turn 18 acres
of Ozark forest into a peaceful haven for people and native plants.
Gatewood Gardens, located near Galena, is a place for youngsters to
build lifetime knowledge, skills and friendships. (Missouri Dept. of
Students in Mike Collins' botany class learn about much more than
REEDS SPRING, Mo.-Everyone remembers one class in high school that
captured their imagination. In most cases, a remarkable teacher
turned an otherwise dry subject into a life-changing experience.
Botany students at Reeds Spring High School are fortunate to have
not one such positive influence, but three. Together, they are
creating a legacy for future generations of southwest Missouri
Mike Collins' botany classes have a history of achievement. Each
fall they grow poinsettias for a Christmas fundraiser. In the dead
of winter, they begin growing thousands of plants that will decorate
the pathways at Silver Dollar City. But the program took a quantum
leap in interest when one of the botany students mentioned that her
grandparents, who had recently retired, were working on a gardening
project of their own.
Joe Wolven was a pastor for 50 years. "When Cathy and I decided it
was time to retire from active ministry," he said, "we had this 18
acres near Galena, and we said, 'Let's go build a quiet place.'"
Both master gardeners, they envisioned a peaceful retreat in the
Ozark hills, somewhere families could come for picnics, nature
walks, family reunions or weddings. Being the caretakers of such a
natural haven was their dream.
The dream included building trails, erecting bridges over creeks,
clearing underbrush and returning their piece of the Ozark hills to
a condition at once natural and park-like. It turned out to be a big
job. Then their granddaughter mentioned their vision to Collins.
Besides the end result, he saw an unparalleled opportunity for
education, service and emotional fulfillment.
The Wolvens created a nonprofit organization to pursue their goals,
and Collins' botany students adopted the project as their own. The
combination of vision and energy produced Gatewood Gardens. At the
center of it is the Wolven's rustic home with a sprawling enclosed
The first order of business was to discover what already was there.
Classes of 30 or so botany students combed the area in the
springtime, identifying liverwort, bloodroot, trillium and a host of
other wild native plants. Then they began blazing trails along the
steep, rocky hillsides and valleys. In some places, structural
solutions were needed to make foot traffic practical or prevent
excessive disturbance. That caused the project to spill over into
other parts of Reeds Spring High School
Computer-assisted design (CAD) students used their skills to design
bridges. The vocational-technical department drew up materials lists
for bridges and boardwalks, and those who did the actual
construction had to apply math skills for their part of the project.
English and art classes even got in on the action, editing copy and
designing an area brochure.
Now Reeds Spring High School students make as many as 50 forays a
year to Gatewood Gardens, sometimes for planting, sometimes for
building, sometimes for botanical inventories and sometimes just for
"It's unending what you can teach out here," said Collins. "We start
out talking about plants and botany and then switch over to
ethnobotany. From there you get into herbal medicines, Ozark culture
and then history, all the way back to native Americans. It all
becomes very intriguing to the kids. You can't begin to match the
interest we generate out here if you keep them inside of four walls
all the time and cram facts into them without ever showing them how
The Wolvens could hardly be more pleased with the results. "We had
the vision, we had the dream, but there's no way it could have
turned out like this without the kids," exulted Joe.
Cathy notes a different kind of building going on. She points out
youngsters sporting all kinds of fashion, from low-slung pants to
the black leather and stainless steel accoutrements of "Goth"
culture and gives a little commentary on each. One was withdrawn and
ready to see disapproval when she first began visiting the Wolven's
haven. Another had no confidence in his carpentry skills. Each has
blossomed in Gatewood Gardens' atmosphere of acceptance and
accomplishment. Now when they arrive, shouts of greeting ring out,
as if all were at their grandparents' house for a visit.
Collins was pleased when one of his students decided to become a
landscape architect. However, he said his ambition is not to turn
out dozens of botanists each year. He simply wants to give his
students an appreciation and sense of responsibility for their
"How many botanists will we have out of this class? Probably not
many," said Collins. "But I'll tell you what we will have. They will
all have some land at one time or another that they rent or buy, and
they will want to take care of it. That is our economy here in the
Ozarks. It is what people came here for 150 years ago, and it is
still why people want to come here. Of all the things we can do,
teaching natural resources conservation is among the most
Their involvement with Gatewood Gardens also gives Collins' botany
students a sense of home. "These kids keep coming back," he said.
"When they come home from college for holidays or whatever, they
come out here to see the Wolvens and see what has been done in the
garden. This has deepened their sense of home."