Sunday, April 6, 2014

Return to High School Park

High School Park Stewardship Manager Kevin preparing a dogwood live stake
A year ago, I brought my undergraduate Landscape Restoration students to High School Park, a 10-acre municipal park in a Philadelphia suburb that a non-profit "friends" organization adopted in order to re-establish native ecosystems on the site of the community's old high school.  At the end of our field trip in 2013, as I was preparing to leave, a young man came by walking his dog and we struck up a conversation.  It turned out that this fellow, Kevin, was enrolled in the graduate landscape architecture program at the university where I serve as an adjunct instructor, and that he had just applied for the part-time Stewardship Manager position at High School Park.

I needed some part-time help in my preserve, so I asked Kevin to call me if he found that he had some time.  Kevin got the job at High School Park, and he did some restoration work for me, too, all while trying to finish his Master's degree (which he will do next month).  So, when it came time for a field trip this year, I asked Kevin to escort my students - graduate students this year - around the park, which we did on a drizzly, cold April 3 morning.
An introduction to the restoration work
We spent a lot of time in the floodplain of Tookany Creek, which forms the northern border of the park.  Like all the streams in the Philadelphia suburbs, Tookany is a "flashy" stream that roars after rains and then dries up to nearly a trickle between storms.  Water quality is "impaired," a polite term for terrible.  The streambanks are constantly eroding, and much of the work in the park is dedicated to trying to stabilize them as best as possible. 
Considering options for streambank restoration in an urban watershed
The municipality has spent a lot of money installing "cribs," telephone poles anchored into the streambank and filled with soil, then planted with trees and shrubs.  The cribs hold for a while, but inevitably the stream begins to erode behind the structures, which usually results in a catastrophic failure during a major flood.  In the lower right of the image below, the upstream end of one of the cribs is visible.  If it doesn't receive some attention soon, that crib is doomed.
Downstream view of Tookany Creek with crib 
Though spring is finally getting underway here in the northern Piedmont, only a few flowers have dared to blossom yet.  One that is not so shy is lesser celandine, an invasive buttercup that carpets our urban and suburban floodplains excluding native spring ephemerals.  Though the plant flowers profusely, ecologists believe that tiny bulbettes attached to the tops of the roots are actually more responsible for its spread than are its seeds.  Because he plant favor floodplains, the bulbettes detach from the mother plant and wash downstream during floods, establishing new colonies.  
Lesser celandine (Ranunculus divaricata)
The site of the demolished high school on a plateau above the creek has been converted to a meadow.  Though the "friends" have tried twice to create a meadow dominated by native species, the meadow consists mostly of non-native, invasive weeds.  The repeated failure can be attributed to the fact that the building was bulldozed into its basement, leaving a calcium-rich, high pH substrate for plants that prefer low pH soils.  In addition, the layer of topsoil spread over the site was far too shallow to support most native species.  Scheduling difficulties with the planting contributed to the failure.  And, finally, becaue the park is public property, the private "friends" group cannot apply herbicides that might help keep the weeds in check.   
At the edge of the "native" meadow
Kevin also has to beg for help from the municipality's parks department, which has mowing equipment that the "friends" group cannot afford.  While the park employees try to be helpful, sometimes they act more like "cowboys" more adept at mowing large expanses of turf.  Two weeks ago, the park guys mowed down shrubs planted at the edge of the meadow - another setback.
Colorful stakes failed to prevent the parks "cowboys" from mowing shrubs
At the end of our tour, Kevin showed the group some "planting logs" he invented to try to speed-up the development of a riparian shrub layer.  Kevin creates a "burrito" of mulch and soil wrapped up tightly in burlap, and then he inserts dogwood cuttings into the logs.  He keeps the burritos moist, which encourages the dogwood cuttings to develop roots.  Then, he takes the rooted logs down to the streambank and secures them with more dogwood cuttings in an effort to jumpstart a stabilizing shrub cover.
A burlap planting log
How Kevin will secure the rooted logs onto the streambank


packrat said...

Very interesting and informative post, Scott. I'm giving Kevin an A+ for his "planting log" creation. Sounds a lot more brilliant than the cribs that keep getting uprooted. I always enjoy reading your "field trip" posts because I usually learn something fascinating from them.

robin andrea said...

I love the burrito log! That is such a great idea. Just reading about young people with dreams like this almost (ALMOST) makes me safe about the future of our planet. ALMOST.

Scott said...

Packrat: The "burritos" are a great idea, aren't they? Kevin is also experimenting with similar layered mats (horizontal) that are separately seeded with herbaceous floodplain, woodland, and meadow mixtures. The problem with these techniques, though, is that the logs and the mats become very heavy as they get larger. Kevin is thinking about making mats large enough that they would have to be moved into place by a front-end loader, but they would cover a substantial amount of ground.

Scott said...

Robin Andrea: Don't worry, Robin Andrea, the young people will get corrupted--just like I was. You can rest assured that the world will continue its downward spiral with only a minor speed bump. (From the cynical Scott; sorry.)

Anonymous said...

Ogontz High School wasn't just one building, it resembled a small college campus. I was there once in the 5th grade on an open house (I would have attended jr high there if we hadn't moved) and again in 1988, when it was abandoned but the buildings were still standing. My elementary school (Shoemaker), also a very impressive building, had been demolished by then.

The creek near High School Field has a lot more trash in it now than 5 years ago when I was last down there. It smelled different too, in 2009 it smelled as I remembered it from childhood, maybe not pleasant to some but homey and familiar.