A short 22 1/2 years ago I titled my first column for this paper “I Fought the Lawn and the Lawn Won,” after the old Sonny Curtis song “I Fought the Law” that was a hit for Bobby Fuller in 1966. Recently I found myself reprising the tune as I observed the front lawn at Carrboro High School begin to disappear, replaced by carefully spaced oak and hickory trees, pollinator gardens, edible plants and beehives.
This transformation is a team effort begun about four years ago by school parents and local conservationists Johnny Randall and Libby Thomas, whose son Lewis graduated from there in 2011 and whose younger son, senior Max, is fully engaged in fighting the lawn now. What started with native plants replacing the typical non-native generic plantings that usually front any school has become a full-fledged change in thinking, doing and learning at Carrboro High.
As the pollinator garden matured, attracting beneficial insects and birds, Advanced Placement environmental science teacher Stefan Klakovich engaged his students building a sustainable vegetable garden behind the school.
Then, last Earth Day radical transformation of the front lawn began, led by East Chapel Hill High alumnus, Macon Foscue, now of Asheville, with his permaculture crew Saplings for Schools. Members of Klakovich’s classes helped Foscue’s crew put in blueberries, cherries, elderberries, native aronia berries – a super fruit, pawpaws and medicinal plants like comfrey and boneset, to join the two nearby beehives that now produce Carrboro High honey. This fall the crew returned to add chestnuts and hazelnuts.
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An added benefit of replacing this part of the lawn is that the steepest, most dangerous and time-consuming areas to mow near the stormwater basin are now covered with these pollinator-friendly plants in mulched beds, reducing mowing and decreasing air pollution.
Last September Libby Thomas developed and presented to the PTSA a tree-planting plan to completely replace the front lawn. Klakovich presented it to the schools improvement team; then city schools’ sustainability coordinator Dan Schnitzer presented to school principal Laverne Mattocks, then the school board. A potent partnership of the school administration, PTSA, teachers, N.C. Botanical Garden and compost provider Brooks Contractor promptly agreed that replacing the conventional lawn with the native pollinators, edibles and beehives to create a more diverse, living landscape was the direction in which to lead Carrboro High.
During my first site visit on a Saturday in December, A.P. environmental students were earning some of their 16 field service hours planting the first row of white oaks in a thick ribbon of rich compost according to Thomas’ planting plan. Her plan was modeled after the classic, carefully placed pattern of tree planting at the Polk Place quad on UNC’s central campus between South Building and Wilson Library. Coordination with school grounds maintenance staff ensured trees were spaced at least six feet apart so mowers could easily drive between them to mow whatever grass remained under the future canopy until it eventually is shaded out.
While the students were digging, planting and laying cardboard and compost over the existing grass, I had the chance to talk to a few of them. Mario told me the trees would bring more diversity while the existing lawn held no environmental benefits. Karl said he was doing this to improve the environment, adding this was better than sleeping in and then watching football. The lively pair of Millie and Dorrie informed me that these trees would help with carbon sequestration and their drought tolerance would enable them to survive while reducing theneed for mowing. Max Randall, the son, indicated he’d learned his lessons well both at school and home which borders Morgan Creek, informing me that getting rid of grass will reduce the amount of fertilizer runoff, thus reducing algae growth in the stream.
A subsequent conversation with Mattocks, who describes herself as “chief learner” at the school, showed she’s now an enthusiastic supporter of the transformation. She initially viewed the pollinator garden at the front of the school as a tangled mass, not like the orderly foundation plantings she (and most of us) had experienced or seen throughout her school career.
While Mattocks understood the concept right away, what really won her over she told me, was that the first spring in her in office she glanced out the window and saw the “most beautiful golden breasted bird I’ve ever seen.” That goldfinch clinched it for her – this natural landscaping that promoted varied bird life, required less maintenance and water, provided more diversity and offered an unexpected mix of colors from fall and spring flowers that she might have previously perceived as “weeds.”
Schnitzer is documenting benefits to the school system from this transformation at Carrboro High. He envisions it as the beginning of a shift in the school system’s overall approach to grounds maintenance and using the schools as living laboratories that engage the community of students, teachers, parents and staff on every level while building a landscape infrastructure that is resilient, drought tolerant, productive and resource efficient.
You can reach Blair Pollock at email@example.com