Over the past few years, the mowed lawn behind Whittier Hall has been transformed into a lively meadow. This project, spearheaded by Claire Sawyers, director of the Scott Arboretum, and Michael McGraw, senior wildlife biologist and ecologist at Resource Environmental Solutions (RES), was intended to be both an art exhibition and an inspiration for the art students based in Whittier Hall.
In an interview with The Phoenix, Sawyers explained the original concept for the field behind Whittier Hall. The field serves as a geothermal wellfield to power Whittier Hall and was originally intended to be an outdoor art gallery due to its proximity to the art department. Due to ongoing construction, the ambitious vision for Whittier Meadow was forgotten and it ended up as a mowed lawn.
For the past few years, RES has worked on an environmental stewardship plan for the Crum Woods. This has included converting the floodplain near Crumhenge, a rock outcropping in the Crum Woods roughly in the shape of Stonehenge. The progress on the project inspired the Scott Arboretum to renew the Whittier Hall lawn, both because of the success of the project and because they had developed their relationship with RES.
“I think it was a matter of, if this is going to happen, now would be a good time; we had seen the success of the meadow by Crumhenge. We [also] had a relationship with RES, so they were keen to take it on,” Sawyers explained.
The Whittier project is distinct from the college’s To Zero By Thirty-Five project dealing with the campus carbon footprint. The goal of the Whittier project is to create a blended transition zone between the Crum Woods and the buildings on campus.
The Whittier Meadow project itself started in Fall 2021 after the Arboretum accepted the project proposal from RES. RES came up with conceptual designs after data collection based on the former mowed lawn, a monoculture of cool season grasses. The first step in the process was coming up with a design for the meadow using student and faculty input during Spring 2022.
“We [told RES that] we wanted to have [students and faculty] engage in a design charrette, where we invited users of Whittier Hall to come and express how they were thinking about this,” Sawyers said.
Some of the factors they considered in the design charrettes were the meadow layout, potential art installation locations, the heights of plants, and the plant palette.
Sawyer’s original idea to use the meadow as a transition space from the woods to the built landscape was embraced by the design charrette. This design approach better connects the woods to the experience of students, staff, and faculty working in Whittier Hall.
“We should think about maximizing that interface between the built landscape and that incredible natural landscape, and celebrate it like a beachfront property, like the woods are our ocean, because of what they contribute to the beauty and tranquility of the campus,” Sawyers said.
Sawyers explained that the college has not typically celebrated the beauty of the Crum Woods.
“Historically, what the college has done is it treats [entrances to the Crum Woods] like a backdoor, it pretends like that’s nothing to celebrate. We’re gonna put a wall up or we’re gonna put a road cutting off [the woods],” Sawyers said.
McGraw also detailed the process of choosing plants for the meadow based on specific aesthetic guidelines.
“Through the design process, it became very clear that we wanted to make sure there were open sight lines, so there were only strategically a couple areas where we seeded or plugged taller grasses, so the dominant native warm season grass that we used is Bouteloua curtipendula,” said McGraw.
Plant nativity was also important to RES because one of their core principles is that they only plant species that are native to the area.
“Most of the work we do is pure restoration. So we really only use the native plant palette … we don’t want to be introducing plant species that are native to Pennsylvania but are not known to occur in Delaware County,” McGraw explained.
While deciding on which plant to choose, McGraw had to balance different priorities before ultimately deciding on the Bouteloua curtipendula, even though it wasn’t the most common in the area, since it would be shorter and look better in the meadow.
“Little bluestem is probably the most common of the native warm season grasses that occurs in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, but that tends to get a little taller, it’s more bunch forming. This is where we need to marry aesthetics, safety, and nativity,” McGraw said.
RES also had to get all of these plant choices reviewed by the Arboretum Collections Committee.
“The arboretum has a collections committee [made up of] our garden supervisors, Chuck Hinkle and Adam Glas, Jeff Jabco, myself, Mary Tipping, our curator, and Josh Coceano, our horticulturist,” Sawyers said. “We are a committee that works on looking at plants we want to [acquire] and turn it into the [arboretum] collection … and so the meadow planting proposal by the landscape architect at RES got reviewed by the Collections Committee.”
After the plan was approved by the Collections Committee, they killed the turf to start preparing for the installation in the Summer and Fall of 2022, which was when they did the first seeding. Planting, plugs, and shrubs were put in this past spring.
At long last, the meadow was completed and has started blooming this past summer.
“We’re seeing the results of the seeds this year. [RES] will be maintaining it by making six visits a year for the first five years so that it gets well established and is more or less self-sustaining,” Sawyers said.
Animals have also started gravitating towards the meadow, signaling the project’s success. Despite this milestone, McGraw acknowledged that creating a meadow is a years-long process.
“There was a breeding common yellowthroat in the meadow this year, which I think is a hierarchy of success,” McGraw said.“A [meadow] takes several years to establish, and if you look at it the first year, it just looks like a bunch of weeds.”
AJ Tambling, a sophomore and prospective biology or ecology major, was excited to learn about the meadow when she got an email from Campus Engagement Coordinator Sue MacQueen, announcing a lunchtime hour-long talk about the meadow.
“I guess I have a general interest in nature and being outside. And so when I saw Sue MacQueen[’s] email about the meadow, I thought, ‘Oh, I didn’t know they planted it recently. I’ll go learn about it because that sounds cool,’” Tambling explained.
Tambling emphasized the importance of having wild spaces on campus.
“More diversity is always a good thing, especially with native species in an area that is very curated already, with manicured lawns and planter beds. Having a more ‘wild’ space is good for everyone.”
Sawyers echoed Tambling’s sentiments, emphasizing how a large-scale art installation might look visually in the meadow.
“The sculpture functions as an anchor or a visual cue, by which you can assess the dynamic change of a flowering meadow or growing meadow,” she explained.
The space also provides a teaching opportunity.
After learning about it, Tambling was excited about the possibility of research on the meadow, which she emphasized was a new space with the possibility for novel research.
“No one’s looked at specifically what’s happening on a scientific level — like collecting data and analyzing it to answer a question yet, which is cool,” she expressed.
While she wasn’t sure she’d get a chance to do that research, Tambling was excited to learn what complexities the meadow might contain.
“There’s definitely lots of opportunities and I don’t know if I’ll get to take advantage of them … But if I don’t, I really hope others do, because I would love to learn more.”
McGraw was very excited about the possibility of stoking others’ interest in the meadow.
“[Something] as simple as walking through a meadow and watching different bugs on different plants will keep me forever interested. And if we can maybe stoke some other people’s interest in that through this, that would be rad.”