Wednesday, November 18, 2009


When Shamrock school was built, someone planted a row of dogwoods along one side. They were beautiful. An old photo on the school office wall shows them in their spring finery, their white clouds of bloom spreading in glorious display despite the ravages of water stains and fading ink.

Now only one tree remains, its trunk splotched with green lichen, age-brittled branches twisting tentatively upward.

Its companions died off one by one and were cut down, leaving a row of ragged stumps that lie concealed beneath the tenacious mix of grass and weeds that covers most of the school grounds. When students aren't careful, they trip over the remains.

Our school's landscape tells a gritty story of hope and decay, of efforts made and then abandoned, of survival.

In early spring, just beyond the school athletic fields, flashes of pink appear behind a blowsy hedge of wildly grown grey privet bushes. Someone, at some point, planted a long row of tulip magnolias, fronted by a contrasting row of privet. But once the privet was no longer pruned (if it was ever pruned at all), it bounded well beyond its role in the landscaping plan. The showcase magnolias now struggle to be seen.

At the heart of the school, in one of the inner courtyards, butterfly bushes, lavender and sweet shrub fight their own battles against the choking mass of weeds that sweeps in waves across the landscape every spring. Not so many years ago, the school's science teacher got a grant to turn the courtyard into a wildlife habitat. She and her students planted cover and food bushes, purchased bird feeders, put in a pond. A plaque marking their efforts still hangs on the side wall. But as soon as the teacher left the school, the weeds took over. Now they reign supreme, threatened only by the CMS landscapers, who show up periodically to mow them – and everything else – down.

For some years now, the care of most of the school's plants has been delegated to a district-hired landscaping company, whose employees descend upon the school at unpredictable intervals. They have two basic techniques: mow and ball. Anything that looks unruly gets mowed to the ground. Shrubs are snipped into shapes that are more or less round. The boxwoods that line parts of the school parking lot end up looking like a jumble of irregular green marbles, each a slightly different size.

A few plants have survived the onslaught of weeds, mowers and clippers. A tall, shapely magnolia rises from its courtyard to tower over the rooftops. Out front, in summer, a chaste tree puts out spires of blue-purple blooms that draw bees from all through the neighborhood. A line of thriving white azaleas swells against one office wall, their magnificence diminished only slightly by gaps left behind by long-deceased companions.

Most of the survivors, though, are ancient, prickly holly bushes, scattered across the grounds in patterns that can no longer be discerned. Decades of ball-shaped trimming have kept them relatively short – six feet at most. But their close-cropped branches harbor trunks worthy of the far larger plants that they aspire to be, a foot across or more, of iron-hard wood.

Where to start? Countless children's songs and rhymes link raising kids to growing gardens, usually with hefty doses of sunshine and good cheer. But as any gardener (or parent) knows, raising anything is hard work, full of sore joints, setbacks and frustration. We have a long slog ahead.

One thing's for sure: we can't simply root it all out and start clean. First, we don't have the money. Second, parts of the landscape still matter to people. At one side of the wildlife habitat, for instance, a Japanese maple clings unhappily to life in far more sun that it deserves. But it was planted in memory of a student who passed away some years before. It can't just be put out of its misery. Struggling plots of lavender, lamb's ears, mint, even morning glories all have their supporters.

So we start by cleaning or, in a phrase I've always loved, "beautification." The word has an old-fashioned ring, and what we're doing seem thoroughly old-fashioned, a scene that has been played over and over again in schools throughout the world.

In a series of "school beautification" days, parents converge to rake leaves, pull out weeds, trim back shrubs. There are whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Africans. We grunt, laugh and have fun. We clean the pond, and discover a toad at the bottom, the last amphibian survivor of the wildlife habitat project. We take a chainsaw to one of the hollies, but the holly wins.

Our early efforts have little staying power. The weeds return. More leaves fall. The pond clouds once more with green slime, and we never see the toad again.

Two pieces, though, endure, at least for now.

At one side of the school, we pulled out a group of ragged boxwoods that once spelled SGE above a bed of weed-infested stones. We replaced them with letters made from railroad ties we salvaged from the remains of an unsuccessful effort to build a playground pathway. The ties, painted bright green, are less elegant than topiary, but also far less work. So far, they have resisted the weeds.

In front, in beds that lead out to the street, we threw out layers of cosmos and zinnia seeds, along with a few sunflowers. That summer they bloomed red and pink and orange and yellow, too thick to give the weeds much of a chance. Birds and butterflies began to visit. We've planted them again each spring. People have always cared about the school. But now it's started to once more look like someone does.

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