Dear School District:
As many of you are aware, Irvington is in the beginning of a process designed to revitalize Main Street. This process will include traffic calming measures – something very important for the school district's children as well as the larger community – as part of an overall plan to make Irvington more walkable. Another important part of the process is to upgrade the landscaping all along Main Street. Aesthetics are a major element of "walkability" – something nice to look at. But landscaping is so much more than that – it’s the way we connect to nature. In 1948, Christopher Tunnard, the "father" of modern landscape architecture, penned these words:
"Our … gardens have a new mission - to fulfill the need for an affinity with Nature … In an age which has divorced itself from the life of the soil we need Nature's materials … – her sticks and stones and leaves, the stimulus of her proximity."
These words are still as true as ever. Feeling connection to the earth, to the seasons, to nature is an important part of our and our children's well-being. I sent a letter this spring alerting you to the fact that 2015 has been designated the International Year of Soil by the United Nations. I had hoped (and still do!) that the topic of soil would be given a special focus in the science curriculum at all levels this year. Soil science is an interesting and complex field – it’s a combination of geology, physics, chemistry and biology, so it affords excellent STEM educational opportunities and you can even get your hands dirty while doing it!
Your various District campuses have a lot of grass space (excluding fields) that takes time and water resources to maintain, not to mention the air and noise pollution caused by the mowers and blowers and the adverse effect of pesticides and fertilizers that are undoubtedly used on the grass.
There is another initiative started in 2014 called "Bring Back the Pollinators" – a Xerces Society Conservation Campaign with a Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Their campaign has a lot of the same "hooks" as your PACE car program – you sign a pledge, you get a sign and so forth. But, more importantly, you either preserve or create pollinator habitat before you take the pledge. You learn why that is important – because pollinators are essential to the reproduction of over 85% of the world’s flowering plants, including more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species. Without pollinators, there wouldn't be fruits and seeds for birds and mammals to eat. Pollinators are at risk from habitat loss, pesticide use, and introduced diseases.
Especially in a Village like ours, it is important to include pollinator plantings wherever we can, because almost all of our land is developed, and on larger lots habitat is lost to lawns and swimming pools. On school property, habitat is lost to playing fields either made of plastic or groomed and mowed and seeded with a virtual monoculture of grass species.
Why not take the initiative to decrease some of the "lawn" areas on the various campuses by planting pollinator garden strips? At the Main Street School, you could use the grassy hillside between the school building and Village Hall for a pollinator garden. Such a garden would help with stormwater management on that hillside, where an open 6-inch PVC pipe daylights at the top of the hill, causing erosion and probably putting the Village Hall retaining wall at risk – easy to design a pollinator garden that would slow that stormwater down. At Dow's Lane, you could turn part of the land where the trailers used to be into a pollinator garden. At the Middle School/High School campus you could plant a pollinator garden strip along the base of the conservation easement on the east side of Meszaros field. There could still be a strip of lawn next to the track for people to sit on, but behind it (and nearer to the road) could be pollinator habitat garden. Also, the area where the detention basin is on your right side as you come up the hill is all grass – some of that could be turned into habitat as well.
Most of you probably realize that pollinator habitat gardens don't have to be intensively maintained once they are established. Most of the plants you will use thrive in poor soil – no need for compost or soil enrichment or whatever. Most of the plants that you will use are also drought-resistant, so that once they have grown for a couple of seasons and established their root systems, irrigation wouldn't be required except in times of extreme drought. There's an example of this up at the O'Hara Nature Center – the Xeriscape garden that I designed was installed a couple of seasons ago. It is not fenced to keep critters out and it has no irrigation system. It was watered with a hose a couple of times last summer when it didn't rain enough and weeded a couple of times. It is planted only with native species. There are shrubs, grasses and flowering perennials. Most everything came back after the winter and there’s been relatively little browsing by deer or other critters. If there had been more money, a few small trees could have been incorporated and the planted density could have been greater to help keep weeds at bay. Have a look at it now – none other than Joe Archino commented at the last Village Board meeting that it looked amazing. It's not perfect, but it sure is exuberant (and full of pollinators)! Pollinator gardens don't have to be "messy meadows" or "look weedy" – they can be designed just as your home landscape is and have flow and interest. A pollinator garden is maybe even better than a vegetable garden for students, because the plants start to come back (if they're perennials or grasses), leaf out and many will flower in the spring, before summer vacation. Vegetables really come into their own during the summer, when the kids aren't around – you can't even plant seeds outside until mid-May. A pollinator garden will still be flowering in fall when school starts again – in fact their fall look can be very beautiful if plants are selected for fall foliage color. You can pick the fall leaves and extract the color pigments and separate them out on a gel in chemistry lab. You can make art from the colored leaves. You can use the garden for photography class.
The gardens don't have to start out big. Think of them as "demonstrations" at first, just as was done at the Nature Center. Once you and the school kids see how cool it is, they will want to enlarge it over time. And that can be a science project in and of itself with continuity year to year.
Here are a few examples:
This is a circle garden in Tarrytown down by the river with no irrigation and no fencing. It is planted with a simple palette – three different species of ornamental grasses with different heights and habits, Joe Pye weed and Verbena bonariensis. The pattern in which the grasses and flowers are planted provides the flow – the grasses provide structure, color, texture and motion in the wind.
Here's the pollinator garden at Stone Barns along the main driveway. It happens to also be a stormwater management bioswale. The showy fall color is from sumac, a native shrub with prominent seedheads beloved by birds who use them as winter food.
The High Line – Quintessential example of pollinator paradise in the middle of the city in a confined space – the plant list for that garden is available on line so it should be easy to find good plants to use.
I'd be happy to share my enthusiasms in further discussions if you want.
OK, what’s happened since then? …
First, the Year of Soil came and went with not so much as a whisper of studying it in our schools. Don’t you think our kids should learn about soil? Do you think any of them know how complicated soil is or why its important to the world?
Second, the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge has since achieved its goal - so there are more than a million new pollinator gardens out there. That’s a good thing! You can’t get the signs any more, though, unless you contribute $55.
Third, we have indeed started improving our Main Street streetscape. We’re finding that the logistics of traffic calming measures are more complicated than first thought. But, nevertheless, drive down Main Street and check out Village Hall and its new plaza and plantings (designed and installed by the Ann Acheson Landscape Design, Christina Griffin Architect and Cronin Engineering Team). We may see a butterfly there yet!
Fourth, the Xeriscape Garden I spoke about has since become overgrown with weeds then painstakingly cleaned up several times. It now has an “official” gardener taking care of it - Bravo! - so I’m happy. I’m still pretty proud of that garden, I have to say.
Fifth, the Tarrytown grass garden I showed the picture of has since been neglected and several cars/trucks have run over parts of it. For the most part, the grasses are still there, so the garden still “reads” not too badly from a distance. But the moral of the story is that gardens in public spaces need to be “owned” by someone and weeds have to be kept at bay.
That, my friends, is why there’s so much grass in public spaces - you can’t mow a garden - or CAN YOU? Remember, a Roy Diblik garden can be mowed once in March and then left alone for the rest of the year. But of course that’s only after its been designed by someone with knowledge of the appropriate plants and allowed to establish itself while being tended to.
Sixth, the school district decided to install paving instead of landscaping in the small central courtyard on the Middle/High School campus because the grass wouldn’t grow and whatever landscaping was there died. Couldn’t they have challenged their students to come up with a solution? Our kids need to be connected to the earth, not to artificial turf and asphalt.