Just across from the Gateway building and overlooked by Wyndham’s patio, the green lawn of grass butts up against a sprouting tangle of orange, white, yellow and purple wildflowers. The coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and Russian sage surround an enormous tree stump that has a new tree growing out of its roots. The area is a center of color and life near an important entrance to the campus and often draws remarks from those passing by. However, not many people, especially those new to campus, know about the history and reasons behind this conservation area.
History of Wildflowers on Campus
Ed Harman, assistant director of Facilities Services for grounds, said in an interview that this place used to be turf grass and that the wildflowers are a fairly recent development. In the past, the area had been a bit hard to maintain. A natural spring near Wyndham always left the ground a bit too damp for mowers, which sometimes got stuck in the muck, leaving the areas unkempt and muddy. In 2009, a 250-year-old sycamore, one of the first trees ever planted on the land that would become Bryn Mawr's campus, failed from age and had to be cut down, and the area became even less attractive. Inspired by the tree’s age and significance, Harman said, his department wanted to bring back life to a historic planting. To start, they put a new sapling inside the hollow of the old trunk to symbolize rebirth. And, having been given this chance, his department seized this opportunity for change and decided to try something new instead of continuing to struggle with grass.
Grounds Tries Wildflowers
Encouraged by the success of Atlantic City Expressway’s program of planting wildflowers in the medians of its roads, the grounds department decided to try planting a mix of 30 different native wildflowers in the new conservation area. Soon after the seeds were planted and mowing ceased, the plants took off. The flowers now almost overshadow the huge tree stump, and now in the midst of summer, stand 3 feet tall on either side of the mulched path. “We got a few calls,” Harman said about the start of the project. “People thought I was crazy, that we forgot to mow”. Since the beginning his department has put up a sign and has even expanded the area by several feet in diameter.
Although the large circular section near the Gateway Building may be the most visible no-mow wildflower area, there are many others dotting campus. Wildflowers can be seen near Haffner, behind Ward, below Cambrian Row and around Rhoads Pond. Although the the same mix of seed is always planted, the colors are different in from place to place. Whereas the Haffner yard near the student garden has more purple Russian sage, other places have more white or yellow. This rainbow of colors may even continue to expand across campus.
Wild Flowers are a Win-Win
Harman stressed his philosophy that grass is great for our large historic lawns, Merion Green and Denbigh Green, but where it isn’t being used there are often more attractive alternatives requiring less maintenance. Mowing tiny medians of grass in the Lower Science parking lot used to be an ordeal. Other places, like the slopes near Helfarian, were actually dangerous to mow because of rollover risks with the riding mowers. Perennials and wildflowers in these areas are not only more attractive, but they also save maintenance and effort on the part of the grounds crew. In wildflower beds unwanted plants like milkweed need to be removed only twice a year, whereas turf is mowed every other week. By planting wildflowers, Harman said, “we can bump up color and visibility at entrances to campus,” while keeping down maintenance costs.
By saving money in these parts of campus Harman is able to direct a more aggressive seeding and care program for the lawn that he is protecting, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and herbicides. So, while planting wildflowers “might not be saving physical dollars, we end up with better quality work”, said Harman.