Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Collaborating With Nature in Harrison Street Park

I wish everyone could see a park like Harrison Street Park like a gardener does, not as static green but instead a place where every plant is part of a story that we help to write.


As someone might compliment a friend on her earrings, in this photo we see nature's donned a neckless of river oats. "Hey, thanks for noticing," Nature might say. River oats is a native grass that typically grows along river banks, but was planted as an ornamental in the swale running under the footbridge.

On the edge of the field, the riot of sunflowers is calling for attention--not for care but for appreciation from passersby. The sunflowers could be said to be celebrating the life of architect Michael Graves, because they were planted in a swale that receives water from Graves' parking lot, and so have enough soil moisture to thrive through this summer's droughts. Location, location.

The sunflowers brighten the view from a bench that people in a hurried era sometimes even use for sitting.

There's a feeling of empowerment that comes with being a gardener of the earth. The environment is not something static that we either dominate or are victimized by, but becomes something we can influence for better or for worse. It becomes something to tend, to nurture, a growth force to study and learn from, to steer and collaborate with. There's a bit of the lion tamer in a gardener, encouraging some plant behaviors, discouraging others. And with native plants, one wants something of the wild to survive in the domestic setting. In this photo, a common milkweed has popped up in a bed originally planted with great lobelia. Keep the milkweed in case a monarch comes by, says the wild gardener.


Other aspects of the lion that is the park's nature are deleterious in the long run and so must be discouraged from the get go. Stiltgrass is inedible to wildlife, and can turn a flower bed into a chaotic tangle.

Mugwort is mugging the great lobelias, and will completely displace them if not pulled out when the ground is soft in the spring.

Horsetail is a native weed that looks gangly. Ragweed is a native that covertly spreads the allergenic pollen that goldenrod is wrongly blamed for. Canada thistle is a eurasian weed that spreads through flowerbeds.

Scary stuff once it gets established, but if the lion taming gardener catches it early, and if the flower bed suffers no long lapses in attention, then tending the garden becomes more like scratching the belly of a kitten--more play and much less work.

Where some might shake their heads and give up on this sweetbay magnolia, which this year has lost most of its leaves for lack of adequate water, the gardener sees a clever solution that requires almost no effort. The neighbor living next door to it has a sump pump that runs even on days when there's no rain. The sump pump water could be directed towards this planting, rather than left to discharge directly into a stormdrain where its water offers no benefit.

And here, unnoticed by most park visitors, is a tree that can feed our optimism now and our bellies in the future. It's a thriving butternut, planted by Bill Sachs with help from Clifford Zink. A native tree made rare by an imported disease, it is making a comeback thanks to Bill's propagation work and consistent followup through the years.

These are the perks of getting to know a park's nature, to learn its stories and feel that sense of empowerment that comes from steering and collaborating with its growth energy.

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