Metropolis: Wednesday, December 26, 2002
How Does A Garden Grow?

With lots of help from angry horticulturists, a Fort Worth school replants.


Outrage can be fruitful. Just ask Denise Gordon and Robin Hartman.

When Hartman, owner of The Plant People landscape company, read in Fort Worth Weekly last month about the destruction of student gardens at the Applied Learning Academy on Camp Bowie Boulevard, she got mad and got busy.

“I thought it was very upsetting” that Fort Worth school district workers had ripped out the gardens that academy students had nurtured for three years, Hartman said. “I knew it had to be aggravating and disappointing for the kids. I thought we could just try to help them out.”

The gardens, planted and cared for by award-winning science teacher Denise Gordon’s students, contained perennials, herbs, native grasses, and other plants. They were destroyed in less than an hour by maintenance workers who believed they were carrying out the request of school board member Elaine Klos. She has since said that she did not mean for the gardens to be destroyed, but just weeded, because she was frustrated “with the unkemptness of the entire campus.”

Gordon said reaction to the article was immediate and strong. “Randy Weston of Weston Gardens was first,” the teacher said. “He came out to survey and give us advice,” plants, and other help. A Tarrant County College faculty member brought more greenery. Then, during Thanksgiving break, members of a group called Texas GardenFairy came by and, true to their name, left gifts of many small plants.

“But the four stars go to Robin,” Gordon said. Hartman not only donated plants from her own business but rounded up more donations from other businesses, helped plan the new gardens, and donated labor to make it happen.

Hartman got together with Steven L. Chamblee, education director of the Botanic Garden, to design the replacement gardens. The Botanic Garden has partnered with Gordon and her students on several previous projects, including a vegetable patch to benefit local soup kitchens. Chamblee, Hartman, and others met the students at the school on a Saturday to help lay out the new plots and ready the ground for replanting.

“The irony of the whole thing was that they [maintenance workers] took out everything that was ornamental and left behind the rampant Bermuda grass,” Chamblee said. “To me this whole thing kind of symbolizes the lack of awareness of sustainable landscape practice. Not everything has to be a green lawn leading up to a row of shrubs around the edge of a building.” Of course, he said, he doesn’t enjoy modern art either, “so I can’t be too critical of people who don’t understand a different esthetic in horticulture.”

After watching some fairly lightweight kids trying to handle some pretty heavy shovels, Chamblee and others helped do much of the tilling. Then Hartman came back on a Monday with a crew of her workers “and finished it in a couple of hours,” Gordon said.

During the week of Dec. 16, the garden mentors returned to finish the replanting of the largest of the school’s three gardens. Hartman and Gordon said the new plants are hardy ones that, for the most part, shouldn’t be bothered by the coming cold weather.

“We had perennials and annuals and native grasses and xeriscapes. Now we have mostly a xeriscape bed” — plus a stock pond, Gordon said. “We’ll move on to the second and third beds in the spring.” Hartman said she’ll be back to help with those as well.

Hartman said several companies contributed, including one that built and donated the water trough and a windmill on which plants like climbing roses can grow. In all, she and others said, the donations were probably worth several thousand dollars.

“I think the way it’s planted now it may be a little easier to maintain,” Hartman said. The replanted garden includes mostly perennials, cacti, and ornamental grasses, she said. “It’s not maintenance-free, but other than weeding, watering, and a little pruning, I think they’ll be OK.”

Hartman and Chamblee said they were impressed by the enthusiasm and organization of the students who turned out to help — even if they weren’t very efficient shovelers.

Denise Cardenas, herself a gardener, was there for the groundwork with her 13-year-old son, Austin. An eighth-grader, Austin has helped with the garden for three years.

“The kids were still pretty angry about it,” Denise Cardenas said. “They felt like they’d gotten all this done and somebody comes and wipes out what they worked hard on.” With the help of a new grant, the classes are now planning a new butterfly garden along Camp Bowie, “so people can see it as they drive by,” she said.

The replanting “is a good thing, but I’m still disappointed for what they did,” Austin said — and, he added, a lot of the kids don’t believe the explanation they’ve been given that the garden’s destruction was a mistake. Austin said he’s thinking about becoming an architect — or maybe a landscape architect, because of his mom’s influence.

Gordon said the grants that had helped her students grow their original gardens probably will not have to be paid back, as had been feared, because the school district has agreed to reimburse the academy for what was destroyed. “They asked us to look up our receipts, which we have. We will hand-deliver them” to district officials, she said.

The teacher said she doesn’t really have any strategy for keeping the gardens in such a fashion that they will satisfy others’ neatness requirements. “I don’t know,” she said. “We’re always telling the janitors to leave it alone, we’ll take care of it. We thought of a fence, but we want to invite people in to look at it,” not to keep them out.

Many of the plants will be the same as the garden contained before, she said, and during some parts of the year they will look dead, “because we want them to re-seed.” Some of the native plants had been included, she said, to help with bug-collecting projects. “We don’t have our bug population (including butterflies) back, but that should pick up in the spring, when the blossoms come” and the tiny seedlings in the new gardens have time to grow.

Chamblee said the replanted area has been informally christened the “phoenix garden” because it, like the mythical bird, has risen from its own ashes. “I can say this — the kids will inevitably meet injustices in their life, and not everything will go as they planned, but you don’t give up.” The destruction and rebuilding of the garden, he said, “is a good opportunity for them to learn some important overall lessons, about communication, patience in dealing with people, partnership.”

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