As springtime approaches, the WestCo courtyard, the longtime home of annual events such as Zonker Harris Day and perennial student hang-out spaces, is growing active again.
Through the long winter, the courtyard’s piles of mulch and pieces of cardboard poking through the soil have given it a barren, dejected look. Many students have questioned what is happening at the site, wondering when there will be noticeable change.
WILDWes, the student group in charge of the courtyard’s re-landscaping, promises it is on schedule and is making steady progress on the courtyard.
Gabe Castanon ’13, who is one of the leaders of the WILDWes student forum this semester, explained that the group did not want to go about the re-landscaping hastily.
“After we got permission to use the site, we didn’t just want to jump in there and make something and then have it not really work a couple of years down the line,” Castanon said. “It has to last for a while.”
Castanon also explained that WILDWes had to engage in extensive prep-work prior to making more dramatic changes.
“The soil was in really bad condition when we got it,” he said. “The sheet mulching and all of the wood chips and cardboard that people have been seeing—that needed to be laid down. And then it takes a while for the soil to return to health. It’s still not totally happy, but we’re planting anyway.”
Castanon clarified that simple seasonal restriction also tempers progress.
“You can’t plant in the winter, so we had to wait for this spring,” he said. “Also, plants take a long time to grow. So it’s still forming into what it’s going to be for the next several years.”
Bill Nelligan, Director of Environmental Health, Safety, and Sustainability at the University, confirmed that the progress of the site is on track.
“Big picture, the project is proceeding as planned,” he said in an e-mail to The Argus.
Emma Leonard ’13, another leader of the forum, explained what WILDWes will be up to in the next few weeks. She said that they recently received their first order of trees and are planting several varieties, including plums and persimmons.
“We also have a birch on the site,” she said. “A cedar, a honey locust. We’re going to be planting two arctic willows, some witch hazel, a red mulberry tree, a maple, and paw paws, which are a native northeastern fruit-producing tree that had kind of gone by the wayside.”
The paw paw tree, in particular, will bring a unique twist to the courtyard’s selection of fruits.
“It tastes like banana, pineapple, and mango…kind of,” Castanon said.
Preserving unusual and local heritage species is one of the organizers’ goals and is supported by at least one outside organization.
“We’re planting a chestnut seed that’s being donated by the American Chestnut Foundation,” Leonard said. “It’s a 90-percent American, 10-percent Chinese hybrid. It’s supposed to be blight-resistant because the foundation is working to restore the native Connecticut chestnut population since the blight. We have to sign a germplasm agreement when we accept that tree.”
This means that WILDWes will not be able to replant any seeds that may come from the growth of this unique hybrid tree. Even if seeds from the tree manage to take root naturally, WILDWes is not allowed to let the seedling remain.
The commitment to sustainability and conservation exemplified by WILDWes’ choices of low maintenance and heritage plants is mirrored in its efforts to conserve resources in the care of the site itself. Castanon outlined the system that WILDWes has implemented to supply the site with water.
“There are going to be spigots throughout the site from a water catchment tank that people may have seen,” Castanon said. “It’s kind of stuffed in a corner of the outside hallway, over by the WestCo lounge. It just collects water from one of the roofs up there. And it’ll be connected to the pipe. So we can use that as much as we can and then supplement it with other water.”
Over the next several weeks, WILDWes will continue to work on the site, utilizing the student forum as a means of semi-extracurricular labor.
“The forum that we’re leading is kind of geared toward implementation,” Leonard said. “In class we’re actually on the site, working. We also have weekend workdays which we’ve just started up again since the winter. It’s a slow process, and this has all been kind of extracurricular for everybody.”
Still, the members of WILDWes are committed to the project and will be continuing work over the summer. Nelligan said that continuation of this kind of commitment will bode well for future projects at Wesleyan.
“If the University sees continued stewardship and a well maintained landscape, we would absolutely entertain proposals for other similar projects,” he said. “We also have a test plot of grass on Lawn Avenue which requires mowing only two to three times per year. SAGES (Sustainability Advisory Group for Environmental Stewardship) and the Greenbuilding subcommittee are actively looking for ways to decrease our carbon footprint through landscape design and use.”
Ultimately, this kind of broad change is what WILDWes hopes to inspire with its courtyard project.
“Our whole project is founded on this re-conceptualization of what a useful outdoor space is, or even what a university campus is,” Leonard said. “I think we’re kind of conditioned to think that what’s normal is lawn. But in reality that isn’t natural. It requires a lot of water, a lot of carbon-intensive care.
“As an alternative, we’re trying to implement a more productive landscape,” she continued. “A landscape that is food-producing, first of all, and that is ecologically persistent. In that sense it requires a lot less maintenance. The ecosystem that we’re trying to construct there is sort of naturally occurring. There’s going to be a meadow there that will require no maintenance whatsoever in the long run. There will be some forested regions. These are all things that may be unconventional but are ideally what can happen everywhere.”
Of course, reducing the carbon-footprint of Wesleyan isn’t WILDWes’ only goal.
“We want it to be a place where people can do homework and play Frisbee,” Castanon said. “That’s very important to us.”