Shelley Smith

Shelley Smith

It feels wonderful to be around a group of people who are passionate about similar interests, even virtually. Last week, I attended a webinar with a group of like-minded professionals from around the country, either interested or actively engaged in grassroots neighborhood revitalization efforts in their communities. One attendee expressed her opinion that “the most important thing to remember is that you have to start somewhere. If you don’t have the money to invest in fully rehabbing a building yet, then grow a garden, or improve the landscaping at the street.” Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are. 

As the heart of our community, every member of our community is a stakeholder in the downtown. Everyone should take pride in the downtown and feel a sense of ownership. Downtowns are also the quickest single marker of the condition of a town as a whole. That is why, while there may be a whole lot of work left to be done, downtown ambitions of any kind should be seen as a positive sign. The more community organizations and residents involved in the downtown revitalization effort, the better off the downtown will be. While we may not have the financial resources that county seats and larger communities benefit from, what we’ve got are many community organizations filled with talented and resourceful people willing to do what they can. Case in point: the newly landscaped bed on Lincoln Street and Wall Street Alley, which was a joint effort between the City, downtown business owners, private citizens, and the Shady Grove Garden Club.

While The News has already covered the basics of the new downtown landscaping initiative, I spoke with members of the Shady Grove Garden Club this week to learn more about their sustainable strategy for bringing nature into the downtown. Perhaps readers will consider adopting a similar strategy at home. Here is what I learned:

Curbside landscapes, pieces of land with which people interact every day, have power. In her book titled Hellstrip Gardening (Timber Press, 2014), Evelyn Hadder urges us to “create a paradise between the sidewalk and the curb.” Natural scenes lift our spirits, purify and freshen air, absorb and filter water, and foster biodiversity. Traditionally, we have ignored curbside locations which can be a tough environ for plants, but there are some that can thrive and improve their surroundings.

The authors of Planting in a Post Wild World (Timber Press, 2015) dedicated their book to “anyone who can influence a small patch of land.” Although wild spaces are shrinking, nature persists and needs our help to flourish even in our cities and suburbs. It is possible to create a plant community that ameliorates the obstacles of money, weather/climate, time, or lack of resources to maintain. Once convinced of the benefits of curbside gardening, the challenge is to design a plant community that is waterwise, sustainable, and low maintenance. It is also essential that the public appreciates the pleasurable associations of wilderness without appearing confusing and weedy.

A few important guidelines to remember are to create a frame with neat edges, keep plants low at no more than three feet in height, add a structural layer with evergreen, and a seasonal layer with color from perennials and annuals. Also, contemporary gardening should utilize “vertical planting,” the result being that every inch of ground is covered by plant matter. Two other important principles are to choose plants that will like the soil you have and combine only plants that enjoy the same conditions.

Because the pre-existing industrial fill in the bed downtown in front of London’s had to be completely excavated and replaced with imported topsoil, that soil is not strictly “native,” and so it was a little harder to predict which plants would be most suitable. This will continue to be a challenge as the landscaping initiative progresses to the other beds. The downtown plant community will be a “work in progress” requiring continuous observation and adaptation. For the bed in front of London’s, the garden club chose only plants that like lean, well-drained soil. They all adapt to hot, dry conditions, but of course, must first be established by careful watering. The latter will likely be the most worrisome factor; another will be our humidity. Luckily, Joseph Keller, owner of London’s Bar & Grill, took a vested interest in seeing that the plants in the bed in front of his establishment had a chance to establish themselves by watering them himself every few days. According to Keller, “the bed immediately became an attraction in the downtown and residents frequently take the time to stop and admire it.”

I want to thank all of you who have written to offer financial support for the new downtown landscaping initiative. This effort is entirely funded by private contributions from downtown supporters. Readers interested in making a contribution should contact Tullahoma’s Community Development Director Winston Brooks at wbrooks@tullahomatn.gov. Any gardening organizations or residents interested in participating in the initiative, or readers who would like to receive a list of the plant selection used by the Shady Grove Garden Club, please email me at shelley@downtowntullahoma.com. If you would like to learn more about resilient landscaping Shady Grove members also recommend Plant-Driven Design: Creating Gardens That Honor Plants, Place, and Spirit, by Scott and Lauren Ogden (Timber Press, 2008).

Be well, be safe, and let’s all continue to do what we can, with what we’ve got, where we are.

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