Planting history: Volunteers tend the Michigan Island gardens

Volunteer plants raised rock garden - Jeff Rennicke photo

June 11, 2024

National Park history is often depicted on interpretive signs and in ranger talks. It is displayed in glass cases and glossy brochures. But in the Apostle Islands, history is alive and blooming in the historic gardens of the Michigan Island Lighthouse.

Michigan Island gardener Elizabeth Lane - NPS photo

Elizabeth Lane – NPS photo

Ed Lane served as the Michigan Island Lighthouse Keeper from 1902 to 1938, the longest stint of any keeper at a single Apostle Islands light. Somehow, among the work of raising three children on a remote island, Elizabeth Lane, the keeper’s wife, also found time for her passion: flower gardening.

A coastguardsman who knew the energetic gardener, once said, “How she used to love to get up to that island and get at that garden of hers. That whole station was one mass of flowers.”

Friends of the Apostle Islands, under the leadership of another energetic and enthusiastic gardener Erica Peterson, began a project of restoring that “mass of flowers” to the lighthouse grounds in 2016. Peterson and her team reconstructed thirteen white stone garden beds and planters in their original locations on the lighthouse grounds.

Aerial view of first lighthouse and gardens from the taller light - Jeff Rennicke photo
Volunteer outside large rock garden aerial view - Jeff Rennicke photo
Michigan light station sign with flowers - Jeff Rennicke photo
Michigan Island stairs - Jeff Rennicke photo
First Michigan Island light framed by lilac blooms - Jeff Rennicke photo
petunia in garden with brick wall background - Jef Rennicke photo

Volunteers tend Michigan Island gardens – Click to enlarge – Jeff Rennicke photos

Using historic photos, flowers and plants were chosen with an eye towards replicating Elizabeth Lane’s plots as closely as possible – roses, day lilies, ostrich ferns, pansies, nasturtiums, petunias, peonies, iris, foxglove, and more. It is thought that some of the blue periwinkles may even be from the same stock as the original plants first established by a previous keeper and then transplanted by Elizabeth Lane. 

Flowers ready to be planted - Jeff Rennicke photo
Purple flower close-up - Jeff Rennicke photo
Gardeners at work, framed by brick porch in foreground - Jeff Rennicke photo
Volunteer plants flowers - Jeff Rennicke photo
First Michigan Island light with garden in foreground - Jeff Rennicke photo
Red flower - Jeff Rennicke photo

Where photo documentation did not exist or was unclear, the team of gardeners agreed to supplement those plants with hardy, low-maintenance perennials that were known to be commonly in use by gardeners in the 1930’s.

Michigan Island garden volunteers

Michigan Island garden volunteers

The result is not just a collection of pretty flowers, although they are beautiful, it is a kind of living, blooming history. Visitors to the historic lighthouse can walk the grounds surrounded by the very same variety of flowers that Elizabeth Lane had planted. They see the same colors, catch the same flower-scents on the breeze, and know the same peace and sense of beauty that the long-time keeper and his family knew so well.

“I am a plant nerd,” says Darlene Charboneau, the master gardener who led this year’s group of volunteers for the annual work outing at the Michigan Island gardens. “I will plant things anywhere they’ll let me.” But this work at Michigan Island has special meaning. “Every year we hear stories of how much people love the flowerbeds,” Charboneau says, “I love how much pleasure people get from them.”

Elizabeth Lane would have loved it too.

Sign up to volunteer with Friends of the Apostle Islands by filling out this form. For information on donating to the Erica Peterson Garden Fund used to maintain the historic Michigan Island gardens, click here.

planted rock garden - Jeff Rennicke photo

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