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Turfgrass at Community Center is Restored, and People Have Opinions

posted in: History, Opinion

Bed of landscape roses, Sedums and weeds

Notice anything new at the Community Center? The perennial and rose bed in front of the building (above) was a weedy mess until very recently.

Greenbelt Comunity Center with new turfgrass


Now it looks like this – turfgrass having replaced landscape roses, perennials and weeds. This additional bit of lawn will be maintained by the same crew who ride mowers across the much larger lawn between the building and Crescent Road, which will take another minute or two, tops.

Greenbelt Comunity Center with new turfgrass

In 1985, when the building was still the Elementary School.

That’s a lot less maintenance than the perennial bed needed – especially weeding, done by staff trained to know the difference between weeds and keepers. So the change will save the city money.

The change also restores the landscape to its original design, still intact in this photo from 1985, except for the addition of trees in front of the bas-relief sculptures.The trees are long gone, so people must have realized they were obstructing views of the building and the fabulous sculptures by Leonore Thomas Straus that llustrate the Preamble to the Constitution..

What’s coming next is a thorough cleaning of the bas-reliefs and other work on this facade, and then the planting of maybe some low evergreens, according to Jason Martin, Horticulture Supervisor. I hope so, because they would soften the look of the building and partially hide the admittedly ugly light cages.

So this landscape change is a slam dunk, right? Well, not so fast.

Anti-Lawn Sentiment on Social Media

A photo of the new turf was posted on local Facebook groups, where I immediately commented that it’s preferable to the “weedy mess” the prominent site had become. But most of the comments were in opposition.

  • “That’s just going in the opposite direction of all environmental advice. Not good.”
  • “Where will the bees and butterflies go? We need to provide a habitat for them to live. Unfortunately reducing maintenance is what it’s all about.”
  • “This makes me sad. I wish I could have stopped this. A weedy mess is better for the environment than turf. Better for the environment is better for people in the long-term but some people are short-sighted.”
  • “I liked the weedy mess. Nothing is more boring than turf.”

The former Horticulture Director who create the perennial and rose bed weighed in to apologize for it (“my bad”) and to support the change. He added that the roses had partially obscured the bas-reliefs.

One commenter, a nongardener, recognized it as a cost-saving move: “If the City cannot afford $5,000 for bus service in 2020 then it cannot afford the cost of maintaining flower beds. It’s unfortunate, but if our budget really is this tight then services to people must take priority over things that look pretty.”

The Story Goes International

So naturally I wrote about this simple but surprisingly contentious choice on the garden blog I write for every Friday – GardenRant, where it attracted 25 comments and lots more on its Facebook page.

Sure enough, some wrote to propose that the space be used for wildlife. (Admittedly, turfgrass doesn’t do much in that regard). “There are beautiful meadow plantings being done every day.” But in spots like this one, I wonder?

Greenbelters also posted comments, among them some who had maintained perennial beds, been responsible for other civic landscapes, or even grown their own meadows, and they supported the change.

  • “I still like the grass. Clean, easy-ish to maintain, neat, visually relaxing, and showcases the iconic building…Most meadow plantings would be too tall in this space. IMO. Go Greenbelt. Folks can make the meadows etc. in other areas.”
  • “Flower beds like that are high maintenance and in front of historic artwork does not seem the right place. Better they are in spots where the inevitable weediness doesn’t distract or seem out of place. Low, similarly geometric, evergreen shrubs to screen the lights would offer a more formal measure of respect for the sculpture.”
  • “The first duty of a city administration is to its citizens, and that includes trying to make efficient use of limited financial resources. Unfortunately, bees don’t pay taxes, but I’m sure there are a lot of other private gardens and public areas that the city can leave to flowering plants and weeds, both of which can support urban bee populations. I also agree that the new lawn looks much better than the previous hodge podge of plants (and I’m a gardener!). Add in the fact it’s less maintenance intensive and it make logical sense to pick that option.”
  • “Dreaming of beautiful planting beds is nice; however, if you don’t even have enough staff to water all of the existing annual beds in prominent places in the city that are normally planted with pansies or water the recently-planted trees, as happened in Greenbelt this fall, perennial beds and nice plantings are a luxury that Greenbelt cannot afford to take care of. Turf is the best solution until a tax increase is approved or someone makes an appropriate donation to take care of maintenance.”

Better Lawn a better lawn? (So what WERE lawn standards in the ’50s?)

  • “I vote clover. It’s relatively inexpensive, easy to establish, enhances the soil, and provides for bees and other pollinators. It can also be mown from time to time as needed with no harm done. Last, it will allow the architectural features to shine on their own.”
  • “Until the mid-late 1950s and even into the 1960s nearly all turf seed blends contained (intentionally) Dutch White Clover seed. so a monoculture grass-only turf isn’t accurate for this space… about 1 pound of Dutch white clover seed would be all it takes to correct that.”
  • “Lawns need not be maintained to the pristine standards of the 1950s. Let them go to provide habitat and reduce the use of herbicides that are harmful to humans and wildlife.”
  • “If the community can’t afford to maintain flower beds, a lawn that is free to accommodate whatever drifts into it is a good compromise.Compromise with a lawn interplanted with snowdrops, short narcissi, species tulips, iris reticulata and blue star creeper. Leave mower on high during summer.”

I love those ideas! Traditional clover might not work but varieties of clover that are shorter and more tolerant of sports activities are being trialed and look promising for widespread adaptation. (Though it may take a lot of re-branding to convince the public that clover’s a good thing, not a weed.)

Bunching Grasses Instead of Turf

A New Zealander wrote that her city had replaced “bright floral bedding” in front of their city council building because they were “very time- and money-consuming”) with “tussocks” which I had to google to find out are bunching grasses. “Inevitably, people complained about all the pretty flowers disappearing, but the tussocks are perennial, low-maintenance (don’t even need to be mowed and they crowd out weeds), five figures easier on the budget, and pleasing to the eye, in their own subtle way. All of which is to say: it doesn’t have to be a choice between high-maintenance plants and grass.”

Not sure if any of those would be suitable for sports activities. I’m also not exactly sure which potentially destructive activities take place there, except for Labor Day rides, which are awfully stressful, even for conventional turfgrass..

A similar idea was raised by a Greenbelter, who suggested “grasses like muelenbergia, nassella, calamagrostis, penstemon, etc. that shouldn’t be high-maintenance and could be planted in the turf close to the building. A grass garden wouldn’t hide the carvings (if placed judiciously) and after the first year probably wouldn’t need any watering.”

Pollinator Gardens Start at Home?

One commenter wrote that ” As for the concern over habitat loss, that small patch will make no difference. If folks really want to make a difference they would tear out their non native plants in their home landscapes and replace them with only local indigenous plants. Change starts with each person. They could join their garden club or master gardeners and offer to make the garden an ongoing project. It’s too easy to criticize others without doing anything to effect change. Be the change you wish to see.”

Use Volunteers to Maintain It?

Garden clubs and Master Gardener groups get requests like these all the time:

  • “There are no gardening clubs willing to take on maintenance of this area?”
  • “What about organizing volunteer gardeners?”

But gardening organizers have stories to tell about the difficulty of maintaining public gardens with volunteers.

  • “As a horticulturist working in an arboretum and a past president of a garden club, from my experience going back to turf was the right choice. The past garden was a choice with the wrong plants. I have worked on school plantings and they never last very long –  either maintenance mows the garden over or someone else tries another idea. Plant native trees and walk away.”

And Apparently our Blog is Pro-Trump!

One commenter declared that because GardenRant ran this story about turfgrass, the website is “ridiculous. It’s as if DJT decided to create an entire website screeching against those of us gardening for the environment and wildlife.” She continued with all the reasons she hates turfgrass before returning to the subject of our blog. “Who is the snowflake exactly when you create an entire website pooing on more natural gardening? What is this country coming to? How awful and ugly.”

Which is a hoot because we’re regularly attacked as treehuggers who support action against climate change and want the EPA to support its damn mission.

So yes, we sometimes go there, but only when there’s a connection to plants. And our blog has “rant” in the name, so readers have been warned, right?

But oh, you’d be surprised how quickly right-wing trolls find our occasional publication of words they claim to be “offended by” and demand that we stay on the topic of gardening, or else! The threatened “or else” is unsubscribing from our feed, to which we’ve been known to respond with “Buh-bye!”

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com.

2 Responses

  1. Mike
    | Reply

    Native bunch grasses can be mown or kept taller, so they might be able to provide a compromise. The problem with not mowing them though is that they would cover the decorations anyways. They also tend to be less adapted to continued mowing compared to the usual lawn grasses (which are mostly European imports).

    I would check out some native turf like Buchloe dactyloides (buffalo grass) maybe, since it would be less “objectionable” to people. You keep the neat clean look of grass, without the “guilt” of using imports 😉

  2. Mary Ann Canter
    | Reply

    I don’t think Bill Phalan needs to apologize for his flower beds in front of the Community Center. I enjoyed that garden for many years and Greenbelt gardens flourished during his tenure. We need more of his creativity and plant sense back in Greenbelt today.

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