Month: April 2019

A Nod to Sod

I rolled up sod yesterday morning and began laying it over a large patch of dirt that had been grass before the heavy machinery and big dumpsters sat on it leaving it a muddy mess. The day was cold and overcast.  I was preparing to create the entrance path. We had marked it out weeks ago and Burnett’s Landscaping of Salem had cut the sod, but we had left it in place for erosion control, knowing April showers would soon arrive.

In this space was sod that I had rolled up a couple of weeks ago, now a yellow-green with chlorosis (sorry grass!). Then there was the sod that I was rolling up that morning which had to be removed with a pitchfork. So much time had passed since it’d been cut, the roots were growing back into the soil. Some of those pieces rolled up with some coaxing but others had to be ripped out of the ground, coming out in different shapes and sizes. I had used spray paint to mark the pathways and, when I sliced through the grass, some sod pieces wore the white paint marks.

As I moved the sod over to the muddy earth on the other side of the sidewalk I’d look for a piece that was a triangular shape, or wider at one end, to fit into a particular space. At some point, I realized that I was creating a mosaic of sod, a jigsaw puzzle of different colored/shaped pieces and some with the white paint which stood out against the green. I was delighted!

The sod mosaic made me consider the garden as a whole, with each contribution to the garden—the waterfall, the sandpit, the pollinator and meadow plants, etc.—creating a mosaic of sorts. The labyrinth, with its 119 artful mosaic pavers and the amphitheater with its mosaic pavers and color wheel are literally small mosaics within a larger mosaic, within the garden which is itself a mosaic. Each bench, each piece of art, everything that goes into a garden helps to connect the separate parts. Together they give the garden structure, beauty, and meaning.

This past week has seen more community members donating time and materials. Cash True Value in East Lyme donated all the hoses, sprayers, and automatic timers to help the garden get established. My mentors, Petie Reed and Rich Oliver from Perennial Harmony in East Lyme, came out in the bitterly cold rain to help lay out 240 plants donated by Judge’s Farm of Old Lyme. My psychology mentor Dr. Jamie Kleinman and I had already spent hours moving, what seemed like a sea of sod, out of the pollinator garden that day in preparation for the plants.  Several UConn students also helped move sod and dirt over the past two weeks—a big shout out to Zhao and Isabel who made our lives that much easier as a result of their volunteerism! The community is also a mosaic—people of all different ages, backgrounds, nationalities—and all of us are filling the garden with a piece of ourselves and our spirit of community. For all of these connections, I am thankful. And for the beautiful sod mosaic that I made with my hard labor, though it will (hopefully) even out to a single carpet of green, I am also grateful.

  • Annette with rolls and rolls of sod!
    Annette with rolls and rolls of sod!

More on the Mosaics

Since late March, Waterford High School art teacher Shelly Concascia has been working with her art students to finish up their mosaic projects. This past week was spring break and on Monday morning—on her vacation!—Mrs. Concascia went to WHS with her daughter Addie to grout almost 50 mosaics. Mary and I met her there along with Jeff Wolfson, an art teacher at Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School in New London. Mr. Wolfson came to help and learn the grouting process, as his fifth grade students are also finishing up their mosaics for the garden’s amphitheater. It took the four of us from 9am to 2pm to grout that many mosaics.

On Wednesday starting at 7:00 am, Mrs. Concascia, Mary, and I were back again, this time to flip the mosaics over, remove the tape and templates, and apply a layer of thinset on the backs of the mosaics. We wanted to make sure all of the tile pieces were properly adhered and to rake a layer over the back for uniformity. This will be important for when we adhere the mosaics to the pavers installed in the labyrinth. Again, we were there for several hours! (Or at least Mrs. Concascia and Mary were. I had to run to the site to lay out tarps and meet the trucks carrying three separate loads of materials, and then run home and get more thinset.) Again, I seriously had no idea how much work these mosaics would be!

I believe Mrs. Concascia went in one more day over her vacation to clean up her classroom and to prepare the mosaics for her students so they could see the transformation. That probably included wiping them down with a damp sponge to get any remaining grout haze off, scraping the hardened grout and thinset off the sides, etc. The mosaics are absolutely stunning. They are mostly 18”x18” with one mosaic in two separate 9”x18” pieces with jellyfish tentacles shooting off at an angle. Gorgeous! The attached photos do not do them justice. Once they are in the labyrinth and sealed, they will be stunning!

I’m just so impressed with Mrs. Concascia’s dedication to her job, to her students, and to her art. She spent so much of her vacation up in her classroom working on these mosaics, and she did it joyously. Teaching the students this exquisite and accessible art form was her gift to them. The mosaics that she supervised and helped to create will also be a gift to the entire community. I have no doubt that they will bring joy to many people who walk the paths of the labyrinth.

I hope that Mrs. Concascia’s students can see the dedication of their teacher and that they will appreciate their own role in creating something so valuable to our community.

  • Shelly and Jeff grouting
    Shelly and Jeff grouting

Scout the Berm-Whale and the Boy Scouts who Shaped Him

This past Saturday several Boy Scout troops joined together to work in the Cognitive Garden. They were asked to help and came without question, many without really knowing what the garden was about, such is their sense of community. One of the best things about learning through service is the exposure to something that may never have been on one’s radar. Learning why it’s important to get children outside is a goal of the garden and something the Scouts know very well. The fact that they are helping to create a space for our youngest citizens to provide a connection to nature, makes it even more fitting that the Scouts are involved in this project.

The Boy Scouts learn through service, but they also learn by doing, especially in their outdoor educational programs where they participate in activities like hiking and camping. These activities allow Scouts to be immersed in nature, learning to conquer challenges and acquiring life skills that lead to resiliency and self-reliance. Those same ideals are what I hope this garden will exemplify for our very young. The children who visit will have the opportunity to learn through “doing” just like our Scouts learn.

While the Scouts may be traversing steep trails and rocky portages, young children can climb the garden’s steep hills, negotiate the labyrinth, or explore the meadow and pollinator garden. The garden will offer an environment that encourages risk-taking and self-reliance as children try to climb boulders by themselves, cooperation as they play with other children in the sandbox, and a sense of freedom as they roll down the grassy slopes and berms.

Just as the Scoutmaster and leaders expose kids to nature’s wonders, this garden will provide a safe space where younger children can immerse themselves in nature under the guidance of parents or caregivers. This garden is for everyone but it’s designed to specifically target children ages 0 to 7, during a critical period of cognitive and developmental growth. Having the opportunity to learn through their senses in a rich natural environment will help to create a more complex brain structure and help them to meet developmental milestones.

As the Scoutmaster guides their troops and encourages them to meet and overcome challenges by themselves to build confidence. So, too, must the teachers and parents of toddlers offer guidance and, at the same time, allow the children to take risks. This is so important for childhood development, psychological well-being, and building a sense of self as well as self-confidence.

The Boy Scouts are an institution in our society because they teach our children so much about life, morality, ethics, camaraderie, cooperation, and caring. But they also get our children outdoors and they teach our children, our future leaders, to be stewards of the environment. We need to instill in our children, even at the youngest ages, a love of nature and a feeling of connection to it. Having the Scouts help build the garden is so fitting and I am so thankful that they, and their parents, are involved.

Thanks to all of you who helped move wheelbarrows full of aggregate to fill the labyrinth and spent time in the “pit” with rakes, the plate compactor, and measuring sticks. And to all who helped form and cover the “berm-whale” with sod.  He will henceforth be known as “Scout” in honor of the Scouts who helped to create him. And thanks to the Scoutmasters and leaders who cut down the cedar trees and made “seats” for the amphitheater.  I am so happy that you are helping create this amazing space for our community!

  • Annette explains what needs to be done for the day
    Annette explains what needs to be done for the day

The Giving Garden

This past week, the garden’s installation began in earnest with sod cutting on Tuesday, materials delivery and excavation on Thursday and Friday, and a work party with the Boy Scouts on Saturday! I want to go in order so I don’t miss talking about any of people who have helped this week.  I just can’t believe how blessed I am to be part of such an amazing community of people who are willing to give so much of their time and energy.  I’m also super proud of our Boy Scouts, their leaders, and their parents who have clearly instilled in these kids a desire to give.

Asking people for help isn’t always easy. It’s easier if the help is for someone or something other than oneself, but it’s still humbling. My $4000 IDEA grant has parameters too, i.e. I can pay a maximum of $500 per vendor and, in the world of landscaping, that doesn’t go very far. Creating each of the elements of the garden takes a lot of inputs, and inputs typically equal money.

For example, both the labyrinth and amphitheater need a six-inch base of aggregate (15 tons), a one-inch base of polymetric sand (3 tons), several pallets of permeable pavers (including the inputs and labor for the mosaic art which will top them), topsoil to fill in the planting beds between the paths, hundreds of herbs, and mulch. Add to that sand for the sandpit (12 tons), stone dust for the pathways (5 tons), hundreds of plants for the pollinator garden and meadow, the waterfall with its own inputs (the kit, aggregate, boulders, etc.) and we’ve got a very expensive garden!

I starting planning for the plants this winter. Due to cost, the initial plan was to buy plugs and have Grasso Tech students grow the tiny plants in their greenhouse. When I spoke to my mentor Petie Reed from Perennial Harmony, she informed me that nurseries would not send plugs in the middle of the winter (because they’ll freeze during transport) and that I had to buy them locally. Petie suggested that I contact Matt Griswold, the owner of Judge’s Farm, a wholesale nursery in Old Lyme.

I contacted Matt, told him about the garden, and was ecstatic when he offered to donate enough plants (in one-gallon pots no less) to fill the entire garden! His donation of over 200 plants and 11 flats of herbs meant that we wouldn’t have tiny little pint or quart-size plants for this spring’s installation—we would have substantial plants!

Matt is my hero as are so many amazing people in the community who are donating both materials and so much labor! I had already contacted Pride’s Corner prior to talking with Matt and they too had immediately donated $500 worth of plants which should cover all of the tall grasses which will enclose the garden. (The labor of growing plants in nurseries is something folks don’t often see. It is a heck of a lot of work to grow plants from seed and pot them up as they grow, taking care of all their individual needs. Next time you buy a plant, realize that there are many hours that went into tending it!)

As for the materials, John Lombardi of Lombardi Sand and Gravel, is another of my new heroes. Once again I had to hold my heart (think Sanford & Son) because, without hesitation, after hearing about the garden, he donated over 30 tons—(yes, tons!) of materials for the garden—every ounce of aggregate, sand, stone dust, topsoil, and mulch. I am just floored, again and again, by the generosity of our community. This garden, like I said in an earlier post, is truly being built by many hands in the garden itself and off-site by these amazing businesses.

And speaking of those who have toiled in the garden, both Burnett’s Landscaping of Salem CT who did the sod cutting, and Butler Company of Windsor CT who did the excavating, came riding in on white horses and made the garden’s installation possible in weeks rather than months. Both companies squeezed us in among a myriad of other jobs, doing more than I could have even hoped. Both companies have stellar reputations because they do exceptional work but they also embody the spirit of community and giving. I am profoundly thankful for their contribution to the garden.

Thank you to everyone for being part of this garden and stay tuned for the post on the Boy Scout work party.

  • Annette rolls back sod to reveal the clean edge cut by Burnetts Landscaping
    Annette rolls back sod to reveal the clean edge cut by Burnetts Landscaping

Something About Mary

Mary once joked, after cutting herself during cooking or maybe taking off part of her knuckle as she grated cheese, that there’s a little bit of Mary in every meal. Later, after Mary emerged from each mosaic class with multiple tiny cuts from the glass, tesserae, and even tiles, I had the sense that there’s a little bit of Mary in every mosaic as well. There truly is something about Mary that goes beyond a hit movie or even “Bloody Mary,” and that is an incredibly dedicated, smart, hardworking, fun, funny and selfless spirit.

I met Mary Ballachino last summer during a mosaic course at the Sacred Art Institute on Ender’s Island. I had just come back from a trip to the Midwest visiting children’s gardens in preparation for designing this children’s garden. We became fast friends and Mary decided to help with teaching the fifth graders at Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School and art students at Waterford High School, so they could learn the art of mosaic and create something unique for the garden.

While Mary likes to call this her “internship,” neither of us realized how little we knew about this particular art or about building outdoor pathways using mosaics on pavers. We’re still learning, and I’m (somehow) shocked by the immensity of this project. Ignorance really is bliss and it must certainly account for half the projects ever started. Thank God Mary has been on this (proverbial and mosaic) path of discovery along with me or, frankly, I’m not sure what I would have done. Let’s just say that my family would have suffered and I don’t think anyone would have enjoyed being around me. But with a friend knee-deep right alongside me, it’s like two pigs in a puddle! Fun! But I digress . . .

Mary, a graphic designer, has amazing abilities that I’m still discovering . . . like her ability to do algebra and geometry when laying out the site design on the actual site, her snap designs to illustrate ideas, her poster-making skills, and her ability to lift multiple heavy pavers without complaint, to name a few. Mary soon emerged as a valuable asset in the design phase of the entire garden as well, working with the Director of the Landscape Architecture department and a small team of us (I’ll talk about this collaboration later!).

In the end, I know that I will look back on this experience and feel not only amazement at all the people who participated in the creation of something so perfect for our community, but awe at the incredible friendship I have found. My name is on the grant, on the design, on the blog, and on every aspect of this project, but to be perfectly frank, there is a lot of Mary in every little aspect of this garden, and I am so thankful to have a friend and partner to take this journey with.

P.S. Many thanks to Mary’s husband Jeff for your help and support and for letting your wife spend so much time with me on this garden.  You Rock!

  • Mary demos for students at Nathan Hales Arts Magnet School in New London.
    Mary demos for students at Nathan Hales Arts Magnet School in New London.

The Garden’s Makeup and Mosaic Art for the Labyrinth Pathways

The garden will be comprised of six main components: a 50-foot x 60-foot crab labyrinth with mosaic walking paths surrounded by herbs; a 16-foot 3-tiered waterfall; a large sandpit with a rowboat play feature (with sand, lily pad mosaics to hop along, grasses to simulate reeds, boulders, and, if I can get one donated, a piling with nautical rope to moor the boat); a smaller ADA accessible sandpit for those with handicaps but also for introspective/non-social play, with buried marine fossils to unearth; a pollinator garden; a child’s faux meadow with a small amphitheater; and a stumpery with a fairy garden, and all kinds of magical things including, I hope, a small tree snag planted upside down so that its roots become the canopy, fairy houses created by some talented local artists, and loose parts so that children can create their own fairy houses.


How, you ask, am I going to create all of these things, including so many other ideas I have in mind? Well, that’s what I wondered too, especially with a budget of only $4,000, but then I already knew what a great community I lived in. I began reaching out to the different area schools looking for artistic youth. My first priorities were to find artists to create mosaics for the walking path in the labyrinth and the materials needed to make them.


I approached the CFO of United Builder’s Supply, Jared Beaulieu, and he was amazing! He too went to UConn and he saw that I was, quite possibly, in over my head.  (Was it that obvious?) He set about getting a team of people to help me from the masonry and tile departments. UBS ultimately donated about six pallets of porcelain tile and the materials needed to build the labyrinth itself, including permeable pavers, edging, adhesive, and grout. They also provided the know-how, explaining why we needed to use porcelain tiles for the outdoors and a certain type of adhesive and grout. That expertise and the materials allowed me to approach local schools starting with the administration.


Waterford High School Vice Principal, Alison Moger, immediately embraced the project and took action. Within minutes (literally!) Shelly Concascia, an amazingly generous art teacher, took on the task of teaching the art of mosaic to students from two of her classes and students in the National Art Honor Society. Ms. Concascia started the mosaic project a few weeks ago and the students have been creating their mosaics on mesh that we will adhere to the pavers before placing them in the labyrinth. Pavers with neutral colored mosaics will surround each individual piece of art to allow the eyes to rest as they move through the pathways. Each mosaic, both neutral and masterpiece, will help to create an utterly unique and beautiful labyrinth. Take a peek at what the students are working on below or in the gallery.


I want this labyrinth to be special, to invite children to not only walk its paths, but to look closer and explore the earth and plants at their feet. I also want beauty and art in the garden to engage and delight the children and other visitors. Mosaics invite touch and I think young children and adults alike will be drawn to the artwork and want to run their hands along it. The amazing part of this project is that the students are creating something for the community that will have a lasting impact. If they attend Avery Point, they can walk along the pathway and see their contribution or maybe one day take their own children to see it. They are learning a new medium and, at the same time, exposing others to this type of art.


About 175 linear feet of pavers (which will be a combination of 18” x 18”, 9”x 18″, and 9”x 9” pavers) are needed to create the pathways and the students needed many different tiles including a variety of colors which were more difficult to come by in porcelain tiles (unless you’re like me and, not by choice, still have pink bathroom tiles from the 1970s . . . but those aren’t even porcelain!).  As such, we (including my dear friend Mary Ballachino who I will talk about in a later post) went in search of tiles. More tile was donated from Owen Coffey & Sons in Niantic, Old Lyme Stone, and Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Waterford. Without these donations and without Ms. Concascia taking on such a huge, laborious project, we wouldn’t have such an amazing piece of art in our community. I’m so thankful that Ms. Concascia was willing to embrace this project, teaching her students the art of mosaic making, and dealing with the constant breaking of tiles, grouting, and other challenges—even offering several days for students to finish up after school if they’re running behind. That kind of dedication makes me so proud of our teachers and our schools, but also of our students who I see putting so much effort into this project.


One more thanks to the WHS Administration and April Cairns, the Learning Through Service Coordinator, who have been so supportive of this project and are providing an opportunity for seniors to create additional mosaics during the upcoming testing day. That number of mosaics takes a heck of a lot of time and effort! I am so grateful for their support as well as the student’s willingness to participate.


  • Waterford High School Art Teacher Shelley Concasia in action!
    Waterford High School Art Teacher Shelly Concasia in action!