The city's gardens, with a staff to tend them regularly, seem more immune to the heat of summer than home gardens.
Gardens are for people to see and enjoy. That's one of the reasons I like gardens that grow in front yards. They are easy to spot and passersby can take pleasure in them.
No gardens are as visible in Lawrence as the city gardens. We find them in parks, surrounding city buildings, around traffic signs and parking lots. More than 30 gardens are showcased year-round in Lawrence.
All are the hard work of a handful of people. The landscape and forestry crews maintain trees, mow the sweeping mounds of grassy areas and meticulously tend the many flowerbeds. Last week I visited with Crystal Miles, a landscape supervisor with the city, to find out what it takes to keep the gardens looking so good, despite the heat and drought of late July.
"We use lots of perennials, especially the more native species," Miles said. The native species tend to be more tolerant of prolonged heat and low water conditions. In many of the city gardens you will find Russian sage, rudbeckia, Joe Pye weed, Kansas gayfeather, oxeye sunflower and shasta daisies.
Like many of us, the city gardeners water regularly to keep the gardens healthy. Many of the gardens are watered automatically, a few require hand watering. The city follows the recommendations of Kansas State University and waters about one inch a week. An agreement with the water department helps out, but city gardeners are sensitive to water shortages.
"When we had a water crisis, we shut off," Miles noted.
Up close and personal
"The highest maintenance area is downtown," she said.
These beds need to withstand urban wear and tear. The crew tends the flowerbeds at South Park, Watkins Community Museum of History and the Lawrence Public Library, among others.
But the flowerbeds are only part of it. The downtown area includes 300 trees. Massachusetts Street is lined with little leaf linden, ash and Hawthorne trees. Soon a Japanese tree lilac will replace many of the Hawthornes, which require a lot of maintenance and are succumbing to disease. The new selection is more suited to the downtown area, "No thorns," remarked Miles.
Maintaining the urban canopy is no small task. The trees require regular pruning, watering and fertilizing. But it's a job the crew has mastered. "The national average (life expectancy) of trees in an urban environment is seven years," she said. "Some (of our trees) are original from 1972. If it's something we feel we can do well, it's grow trees," she said.
But what about the soil? Many of us are used to working in the hard clay so widely found in the area.
Miles told me that rotted mulch is the main soil amendment the city uses. However, each garden bed is assessed individually. Depending on the soil condition of an individual garden, other amendments such as gypsum, sand or manure might also be added.
For some of the sites, though, not much can be done to amend the soil without the addition of topsoil. Miles said a 12-inch base of topsoil is ideal, though not often found naturally. So, it has to be brought in. For example, the new Community Health Center required topsoil for its gardens.
Beauty in between
For those of us who have long admired the city gardens, we know that beyond good soil and plenty of water, something more exists that makes the gardens so lovely. They just seem so well put together, so artistic in their design.
And, I dare to say that waiting for the traffic light at the corner of 23rd and Massachusetts is no problem. The gardens at the intersection are so pretty right now. Blue salvia, red barberry and nierembergeria grow in the island; lime mound spirea, feather reed grass, Hirta and Goldstrum rudbeckias, Carolina lupines, miscanthus, sedum spectabalis and flamingo feather decorate the west side; liriope, periwinkle and raspberry rose hardy hibiscus flourish on the east side.
So how does all that happen?
"That's a hard thing," Miles admitted. "We try to have a group effort." She said that different people on the landscape crew have pet projects. For example, if someone has a great idea for the flowerbeds around the signs, the project design goes to that person. For the most part, everyone works together.
"We design things to be result oriented," Miles acknowledged. "If nothing (else), we have a sense of scale and know how many plants to buy."
On occasion, the city contracts with a landscape designer. One major project under way now is renovation of the garden at Watkins museum. It was designed by a staff person in Lawrence's sister city Hiratsuka, Japan. The Japanese garden is expected to be completed in October 2000 to mark the 10th anniversary of Lawrence's union with Hiratsuka. The new garden will feature a fountain, stone lanterns and a rock "lake."
"We do use quite a few grasses and shrubs," Miles went on to explain the design of the city gardens. "They help with structure. They are big and bulky and (provide) framework. And they look good blowing in the wind."
Because grasses, like many other perennials, are notorious for outgrowing their space, they are divided. "We dig grasses in the winter," she said. After being divided from one garden, they are taken to other garden spots around town.
"We're probably way behind dividing." However, the city hasn't run out of garden space to put divided perennials, she said.
The crews who work the city gardens are never really at rest. In the winter, they typically plant trees and a lot of bulbs, 15,000 in all, "clear up until Christmas," Miles said. February is spent pruning, March involves more planting and mowing. Once warm weather arrives, the really busy time begins. Some gardens, such as those around the Lawrence Senior Center, are considered "high touch," that is hand mowing is required.
The city's landscape staff consists of eight people. Although they're not available for hire, they are willing to provide information on the names of plants growing in a garden. Extra help is hired for the summer and volunteer help is always welcome.
"If groups want to volunteer, that's OK," Miles said.
Naturally, with so many gardens and so few people to tend them, sometimes things get overlooked. Miles urged the public to inform her when things need tending. "We respond to public feedback," she said.
-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can send e-mail to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.