This fall, on a chilly October morning, Alliance staff members on the Virginia Green Infrastructure team met with employees from Dominion Energy and community members at John B. Cary Elementary School (Cary) to plant native trees and shrubs in the school’s conservation garden. The garden is formerly a grassy lawn converted to a landscaped area that provides multiple environmental benefits and serves as an outdoor classroom and recreation space for the school and surrounding neighborhood.

Throughout the morning, volunteers wielding shovels and clippers cleared weeds, prepped the ground for new plants and trees, mulched beds for the fall, relocated an underperforming bed of shrubs, and planted 18 native trees, including eastern red cedars, loblolly pines, black gum maples, and a willow oak.

Two people preparing to plant a tree

Dominion employees prep the ground for planting a native tree

The plantings were part of a maintenance event hosted by the Alliance, and sponsored by Dominion Energy. With their support, we were able to purchase the plants that went into the ground and consult with a landscape architect. Partnerships like this provide crucial maintenance to many of the Alliance’s stormwater improvements around the Richmond region. After planning, design, and construction, proper maintenance of green infrastructure projects is its own puzzle that presents unique challenges. The success of these projects often relies on the work of volunteers, corporate sponsors like Dominion Energy, and community groups.

Installed in the spring of 2020, the Cary conservation garden includes multiple vegetative beds, meandering paths, and spaces designed to encourage scientific inquiry and reflection. The space is intended to mimic forest succession, with separate areas devoted to smaller plants giving way to shrubs, then trees. Overall, 15,000 square feet (about the size of a typical Walgreens) of lawn has been retrofitted to soak up and filter contaminated runoff from buildings and impermeable surfaces before it enters storm drains and reaches its final destination about a mile away: the James River.

The garden is part of a larger effort by Principal Michael Powell to turn Cary into an eco campus, including vegetable and fruit gardens, replanted areas surrounding the school building, and an environmentally conscious curriculum.

A group of people laughing

Working in the tree section of the conservation garden

The Cary project demonstrates how schools can be excellent homes for green infrastructure. The Alliance has years of experience in introducing stormwater treatments onto their grounds. Since our work is accomplished mostly outside of school time, it was especially interesting to hear from a Dominion employee whose children attend the school. When the weather is nice, she said, the garden becomes an after school gathering spot where parents wait to pick up their children. So, the garden is working as intended, creating a community space and absorbing pollutants.

A group of volunteers standing in a semicircle

Staff gives a safety, strategy and pep talk to volunteers

If you look at older pictures of the conservation garden, you can start to see just how far the space has come in a relatively short amount of time. In only two years, the forest succession has become clearly visible. Native trees towards the back show strong signs of growth. The hope is that these trees will eventually shade out some of the pesky weeds that also love the new garden. Still, as any gardener will tell you, each project comes with its own mini ecosystem, characteristics, and quirks, and each season requires a little bit of experimentation and attention. For example, a bed filled with shrubs towards the front of the garden seemed to be too wet for the plants originally placed there. Some plants close to well-traveled paths have a hard time surviving without getting trampled on, not to mention the watering system underground that requires its own specialized maintenance.

Most of the volunteers I talked to were just happy to be outside enjoying the sun, getting their hands dirty, and contributing to a cleaner river and bay. Dominion Energy has generously committed to another maintenance day at Cary this spring.