Simons Park isn’t pretty right now. The wide swathe of green lawn adjacent to the Wellesley Free Library, once kept uniformly tidy on a regular mowing schedule by the DPW Park & Tree Division, is covered with 10,000 square feet of black tarp, secured with sandbags. If you’ve driven by and thought the valued open space on busy Washington Street looks like a construction zone, you’d be right. Welcome to Wellesley’s newest tear-down project.
But at Simons Park, what’s being torn down isn’t an old Cape Cod-style home or raised ranch making way for yet another Modern Farmhouse. This teardown targets the lawn, which for months has been dying a slow death-by-smothering in order to make way for a meadow full of life. Now in its second year, the long-term goal of the project, spearheaded by the Natural Resources Commission, which stewards the land, is to convert the resource-dependent conventional lawn into a thriving, ecologically functional landscape. Designed by Landscape Interactions, the re-wilding of the area is expected to roll out a carpet of wildflowers, trees, and shrubs as part of a big “welcome back” to native at-risk pollinator species such as bees and butterflies.
The smother method, scientifically called solarization and put into place by the Ledyard, Mass.-based company, is commonly used in regenerative landscape projects. Owen Wormser (not affiliated with Landscape Interactions), in his book Lawns into Meadows explains, “The plastic deprives grass and weeds of life-sustaining sunlight, but it’s the intensity of the heat that does the real work. It scorches the plants, cooking the uppermost part of the root system, and kills seeds close to the soil’s surface. The heat also knocks out healthy soil organisms in the top half-inch of soil, but since the beneficial bacteria and microbes a few inches down aren’t affected they’re able to quickly make a comeback.”
Save the pollinators
In taking on this project, the NRC is responding to research that pollinators such as bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, bats, and more have for decades experienced a steep decline in their numbers due to habitat reduction. According to the The Gegear Lab at UMass Dartmouth, out of the 390 bee species in Massachusetts, the three most at-risk are the American Bumble Bee, the yellow-banded bumblebee, and Walsh’s Anthophora (a ground-nesting bee, similar in size to a bumble bee). The Lab also lists over 30 butterflies in decline over the past decade, with the most romantic-sounding names like cobweb skipper, dreamy dustywing, and banded hairstreak.
All these creatures require more than a simple No-Mow May initiative to get what they need. Once nature has been subdued into a monoculture, such as lawn, it requires restoration to revert to a healthy ecosystem. Multiple pollen sources (such as oak and maple trees), nectar sources (such as flowering fruit trees), and host plants that can support egg laying (like milkweed, goldenrod, and false indigo) don’t just blow in on the wind and meet in the same desired spot any more than grass seed did. Basic sustainable agricultural methods such as timing, plant diversification, and working within site limitations are part of the equation.
“Studies show that the greater biodiversity we have, the healthier we’ll be,” says NRC Education and Outreach Coordinator Lisa Moore. “When we try to improve the biodiversity of our town, it helps to improve overall health and wellness.”
The selection of the Simons Park site was no accident. The visibility of the site and a collective memory of the area as a stretch of lawn is key. Back to the teardown metaphor. Have you ever gone by a Wellesley house a hundred times and then, once it’s razed, not for the life of you been able to remember what it looked like? That won’t happen with Simons Park. The before-and-after will be stark. Of course, aesthetics are important. Simons Park can’t wind up with a weedy, vacant-lot look to it. The meadow will have to be so striking, so clearly important, that the mere suggestion of going back to lawn would cause an uproar. Just don’t expect a manicured look. Landscape Interactions recommends in their planning documents, “Be messy. Skip the fall clean-up, allowing dead stems, leaves and seed heads to stand over winter…Don’t be overzealous when it comes to tidying up. Some weeds act as host plants for caterpillars.”
As for mowing, it will take until the third growing season for the site to transition to only one mow every 1-3 years. The first two seasons will need more frequent attention as plants become established. Invasive weeds will always have to be monitored—garlic mustard, knotweed, and bittersweet have a particular fondness for Wellesley and won’t go quietly. We’ve noticed that an invasive plant’s worst nightmare is a group of determined WMS 8th graders on a community service project. They’re the hit squad who helped prep the site earlier this spring by eradicating thousands of the dreaded garlic mustard weeds.
The project has a lot of moving parts, and it’s not an inexpensive endeavor. The Simons Park project is financed through a mix of funding from the NRC capital budget, and from Community Preservation Committee (CPC) funds. Town Meeting in 2022 voted to allocate $20,000 from the CPC fund. Overall costs break down to design and project management at roughly $31K; and labor and supplies including plant and seed materials, tarp, edging, and amendments, which is expected to come in at $15-$20K.
NRC director Brandon Schmitt says the NRC is grateful to have the support for the Simons Park project. “The worst thing we could do is nothing and watch these pollinators continue to decline. This will be an area for people to visit and learn about habitat restoration and why it’s important.”
If all goes as planned, the highly visible meadow will have an aspirational effect. Wellesley is a town where people spend large money on large-scale landscaping projects. What if Wellesley homeowners start telling their landscape architects they’d like at least part of their yard to emulate Simons Park? While we’re at it, let’s reflect on our vocabulary choices. Instead of going out into our American “yard” maybe we should adopt the British way of referring to their outdoor space as “the garden.” It’s always sounded pretentious to me—”My lil’ ol’ patch of earth? A garden? Oh, you give me too much credit.”—but it’s a thought. Gardens are special places you tend and feel protective toward. Nobody wants to get thrown out of a garden, à la Adam and Eve. Yards, on the other hand, might be anywhere, such as part of a prison complex.
This move toward meadows over grass is about much more than aesthetics. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without attention to the health of pollinators, our very way of life is at risk. Since most of our food depends on a flowering plant somewhere during its line of production, pollinators keep our plates full. Ever seen those bumper stickers that read, “No farms, no food”? It may be time for everything from pick-up trucks to Teslas to add a new one—”Want plenty? Protect pollinators.”
What’s next for the Simons Park project
The NRC is seeking volunteers to help with many tasks as the Simons Park project becomes established. If you’re interested in getting on the email blast to sign up for planting, weeding, watering, and other maintenance activities, email Lisa Moore at email@example.com
Fall 2023: The first phase of planting will begin with over 50 varieties of trees, shrubs, biennials, grasses, perennials, and ground covers going in, a combination of seed mixtures, plugs, and larger potted plants. A call for volunteers will go out as the date, TBD, gets closer.
Spring 2024: Phase 2 will follow, with over 25 additional varieties. Here’s a link to the entire plan.
June 2024: Local community member “citizen scientists” will be trained onsite by Dr. Robert Gegear of the UMass Dartmouth biology department on how to survey, identify and upload observations of native bumblebee species using the Beecology web app he designed for mobile devices.