Going Back to Our Roots: Native Planting Project Promises Multiple Benefits

November 19, 2009

Mary Baldwin University is joining a growing number of institutions that are going back to their roots — literally.

With help from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), a program to re-introduce native plant species to the campus is underway, bringing community connectivity, environmental rewards, and long-term savings in maintenance costs.

The first phase of the transformation began in October, when grounds crews began prepping a small plot of grass on the southwest side of Cannon Hill for a spring planting of indigenous grasses and wildflowers. By summer, there will be some plants in bloom, and in the next couple of years there will be a meadowlike effect on the half-acre parcel.

Prairie dropseed, switchgrass, and big bluestem are among the grass species that will be sown this spring, along with wildflower varieties such as asters, blackeyed susans, coneflowers, coreopsis, milkweed, goldenrod, joe-pye weed, and blazing stars.

“When they catch the light it’s a fashion show of flora,” said Bruce Dorries, Mary Baldwin assistant professor of communication, who is helping launch the effort.

“It’s a project that will take place over three years … bringing together the environmentally right thing to do with an economically more viable way of maintaining grounds,” Dorries said.

Earlier this year, Mary Baldwin secured funding from the NRCS, a branch of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to help offset the costs of the native-plants program. In late October, NCRS District Conservationist Robert Whitescarver and other environmental officials took a tour of the campus to discuss landscaping changes and opportunities.

“Doing this does several things. It not only establishes native habitat, but it gets rid of invasive, non-native habitats,” Whitescarver said. “They take over. And in my opinion it is not possible to have a native habitat without a lot of effort. ”

Similar projects have sprouted up in the Shenandoah Valley, according to Whitescarver. Another USDA program has helped farmers to establish 3,000 acres of native habitat within the Headwaters District (Augusta County, Staunton, and Waynesboro). James Madison University and Virginia Tech also boast campus landscaping that mimics the local ecosystem. The trend took off early in the Midwest, where prairie grasses have been planted to help restore fields decimated by modern agricultural processes.

Grounds Supervisor Jeff Wagner, who will oversee planting and maintenance of the project, has enjoyed native grasses and flowers at his home for about a decade and is pleased to see Mary Baldwin taking similar steps.

“This is the way the world is going. We want to get away from chemicals and fertilizers, and this is the best way to do it,” Wagner said.

In addition to requiring little maintenance, indigenous landscapes contain species with deeper roots that retain moisture and control runoff, which could prove useful on Mary Baldwin’s hilly terrain. Fertilizing, mowing, and supplemental watering also will be eliminated. Another winning aspect of the plan: connecting local residents to the college.

“ [Native planting areas] become learning labs, and in some larger communities, a tourist destination. Bird clubs adopt them, school kids visit them — they become a model for what other people can do,” Dorries said.

When the landscape on Cannon Hill begins to take shape, Mary Baldwin plans to extend the program, aiming to sow about eight acres of indigenous vegetation on campus. Steve Grande, director of civic engagement at Mary Baldwin’s Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement, said the project also provides a way for students to get involved — using the landscape as a “living laboratory” to study bird species, soil, and water retention — while continuing the college’s commitment to sustainability.

“There’s no quick-fire solution, but we can do lots of things to go green,” Grande said. “Being thoughtful about our land use is one example of Mary Baldwin’s commitment.”

Article originally published in the November 3, 2009 Cupola.