May 28, 2024

Illustration of a flower, butterfly and watering can

The spotlight

Tending a garden is about as practical as climate solutions get. At a basic level, it helps to put plants in the ground sequester carbon. Vegetation can reduce stress and tension for the people around it, and it provides habitat and nutrition for pollinators and other wildlife. Gardens can provide spaces for education, and of course sources of food. But the act of designing and planting a green space serves a different, more metaphorical purpose: It gives the gardener agency over a piece of the world and how they want it to look—and a role in conveying all those above benefits.

This is the premise behind it Wild visions, a challenge that launched in January in the DMV area (that’s District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, for the uninitiated). The project invited university students to design gardens with all kinds of visions and themes and then bring them to life this spring with native seedlings of Garden for Wildlife – an offshoot of the National Wildlife Federation.

For every plant the company sells, it donates one to a community project, says Rosalie Bull, head of campus engagement. This spring, about 2,000 went to Wild Visions.

“In total, we will create nearly 6,000 square feet of new wildlife habitat in the DMV,” Bull said. “And that’s just this year. We hope to do this year after year.”

According to Bull, this project has a clear solarpunk framework — the celebration of a literary genre and art movement that evokes visions of a sustainable future, where nature is as central as technology. While part of the goal was to get more native flowers in the ground, the challenge also hoped to “activate the solarpunk imagination,” and have students offer their perspectives on what the gardens could accomplish. For example, a group called Latinos and Action of American University wanted to focus on monarch butterfly habitat, as a symbol of the migrant justice movement. Others, like the Community Learning Garden at the University of Maryland, were interested in exploring culinary uses of the plants they received, which included sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, milkweed, goldenrod, and aster.

“We formulated the challenge as a response to the biodiversity crisis, but also as an invitation to be creative and create habitats and to create space for people to connect with the more-than-human world,” Bull said. said. Above all, she and her team wanted the projects to be fun — and help students feel empowered to participate in solutions. “The solarpunk orientation recognizes that things are bad. There is so much reason for sadness, despair, anxiety, whatever. But nevertheless, we are really only being asked to care more for our communities and reintegrate ourselves in relationship with the Earth and our local ecosystems.”

Two people stand inside a large brick planter and lay a protective covering over seedlings, another person stands by the edge and waters with a hose

A photo of Latinos and Acción’s Planting Day at 11th and Monroe Street Park in DC Rosalie Bull

Garden for Wildlife hired Bull in September to explore how it could create opportunities for college students in and around DC (the company is headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland). She visited schools to discuss various possibilities, such as fundraising partnerships or educational programs. “Almost every single student group I talked to was like, ‘Give us plants, and we’ll plant a garden,'” she recalls.

Ultimately, 14 groups participated from concept to planting day. They each received 150 seedlings for their wild visions, as well as design support and, in some cases, connections to local partner organizations. The challenge culminated on Sunday in an awards ceremony called “The Plantys.” Among the six awards handed out were the cross-pollinator award, for the group that best exemplified cooperation; the wildlife gardener award, for the design most focused on creating habitat; and the Sanctuary Maker Award, for the garden that best served as a community space for gathering and reflection. Each prize came with a Engraved, handmade ceramic bird bath.

The landscape design award went to Native and Native American Rights Studentsor SINAR, from George Washington University. His garden took the shape of a turtlemodeled after the flag of the Piscataway people.

“I think we saw this as an opportunity to raise awareness of the connection between climate change, indigenous land control, and even ridge – and also to bring awareness to the Piscataway, [whose land] we live on,” said Julia Swanson, a junior at George Washington and the vice president of SINAR. She and her peers see a general lack of awareness of Native history and the continued presence of Native people in the DMV area. “We just really want to rewrite that narrative and make sure that everyone is aware that no matter where they go, they’re on somebody’s land. And that includes DC”

Jacob Brittingham, the secretary of SINAR, is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. He saw this project as an opportunity to engage with Native representation in his new home of DC “It’s always great when you honor tribal lands and tribal leaders and the history and culture of people who fought to be here , but continue. to be marginalized,” he said.

The SINAR team planted its garden at Piscataway Park and together with the Accokeek Foundation, a local organization that looks after the park and runs educational events there. During their planting day on Saturday, the students had the opportunity to learn from Anjela Barnes, a Piscataway leader and conservationist who is the foundation’s executive director.

Working with Barnes was a highlight for all the members of SINAR. “I felt so lucky to be able to be there and plant these plants, and to be able to ask questions about them and talk directly to Anjela as we went through,” said Riya Sharma, a senior and president of the group. . “It was just such a relief to go to Piscataway Park and be surrounded by nature — let alone use our hands to dig in the dirt and work directly with the land.”

Swanson added that it feels good to be actively doing something the group advocates for on a theoretical level — restoring native plants and controlling invasive species. And the plant itself was joyful. “I’m not exactly a super outdoorsy person,” she said with a laugh. “But they were so helpful, the people from Accokeek Foundation. And it was just a really fun environment. Everyone made jokes and worked together.”

The group named its garden “Wawpaney,” which means dawn or daybreak in Nanticoke, a language spoken by the Piscataway and other tribes from the area. The students worked in a yard in front of the park’s educational center, near the parking lot, which will make the garden highly visible to visitors. Eventually, they want to add a plaque that shares the story of the garden and its connection to the Piscataway flag. “This could be a follow-up project,” Brittingham said.

Three smiling people stand in a grassy area holding up a purple ceramic birdbath

Sharma, Brittingham and Swanson pose with their bird bath at the Planty Awards ceremony. Alia Wilder

As the challenge grows in the coming years, Bull said, she would like to be able to collaborate with other organizations to provide students with the opportunity to incorporate art and other interpretive materials into their gardens. She was encouraged by the enthusiastic response not only from student groups, but also from local environmental organizations, such as Accokeek Foundation, who wanted to get involved and host gardens.

“There are so many components of the planetary crisis that are really abstract, or hard to see yourself as actually being an integral part of the solution,” Bull said. “But biodiversity renewal really has to take place on a yard-by-yard level. It must play out through individual action.” She echoed Swanson’s sentiments about creating the opportunity to put solutions into practice — in planting gardens, the students can see the impact they can have on people and wildlife in their communities. “They’re not like, ‘Oh, I just learned a terrible fact, that the world is being emptied of life and I have nothing to do with it.’ It’s like, ‘I’m actually already doing something about it.’

– Claire Elise Thompson

More exposure

A parting shot

The Wild Visions Cross-Pollinator Award went to three University of Maryland student organizations that teamed up for their planting day: the campus Community Learning Garden, the student chapter of the Audubon Society, and an environmental justice group called 17 for Peace and Justice. “It was honestly so amazing,” said Grace Walsh-Little, a senior and president of the Community Learning Garden. “We worked really hard to come up with a design plan for every single space in the garden and exactly what we were going to choose, and how we were going to space them and where certain plants were going to go. So it was really nice to see how it came into action.” Here are some photos from their planting event on Earth Day.

A grid of four photos showing young people with their hands in the ground, planting seedlings and watering with a watering can

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