Month: May 2019

Volunteerism gravels the way to community building

Friday, May 17th, was awesome! The day was filled with wonderful people volunteering to help build the garden. In the photos, you can see the joy of giving and being a part of something bigger than ourselves and together we accomplished so much! Mary and Jeff stopped by my house to get rocks for the waterfall so I could fit Lulu and her friend Gretchen (a young shepherd-mix that I was dog-sitting) in my car. Lulu once again gave up her sacred passenger seat, now filled with more plants, and moved to the backseat, also filled with plants. Jeff, a Pfizer employee, took the “day off” from work, which really meant an 8-hour day of alternate work, setting 119 seventy-five-pound pavers into the labyrinth edging. Now that is a dedicated spouse, a true friend, and a socially conscious individual!

While Jeff put more personal hours toward getting a 40-hour individual grant from Pfizer for the garden, another group worked toward a Pfizer grant in which a team of five or more employees must work a total of 15 hours together. Anna Silberberg, also a Pfizer employee, set up this volunteer event and requested help from her co-workers. We had about eight volunteers show up! A Coast Guard crew of volunteers also arrived on that afternoon: the three who had helped that Tuesday and the eight who’d had to postpone. We had a half-dozen wheelbarrows and a dozen or so shovels. Everyone got to work and the day was a blur of activity.

Volunteers helped transport and lay the pavers into the labyrinth, dig flat stones in around the waterfall so children can safely enter the falls, and plant native grasses around the falls and in the meadow. Other volunteers got to work moving heavy road-base aggregate to build up the main pathway through the garden. The Coast Guard got that herculean effort done in no time by setting up a wheelbarrow brigade.

Tiffany, a member of the Coast Guard and an amateur photographer, took some wonderful photos. She captured the essence of volunteerism and why we do it. One of the great benefits to organizations, corporations, and small businesses, is the team building that results from this type of group volunteerism. A project like this gets people out of the office and into the “trenches,” working together over a short period of time to accomplish a goal. This cooperative effort yields teamwork, problem-solving, learning, and laughter, not to mention the satisfaction of accomplishment and service.

I just want to take my hat off to organizations like the Coast Guard and Pfizer who allow, and even encourage, their employees to participate in volunteerism. Pfizer even provides grants for its retirees to participate in community service projects. That they believe so strongly in this ideal sets them apart and makes them a great example for other companies to follow.  The Coast Guard Academy also actively engages their members and challenges them to get as many hours as possible. As an American, I am so proud of their commitment and as a citizen, I am so thankful for their support. We will all benefit from the hard work these volunteers put in, especially our children, and through this type of service we are truly becoming a stronger community. Thank you Coast Guard and Pfizer volunteers!

  • Jeff hand-tamps any aggregate that was loosened during the edging process. Now ready for Coast Guard volunteers to help carry pavers over!
    Jeff hand-tamps any aggregate that was loosened during the edging process. Now ready for Coast Guard volunteers to help carry pavers over!

A-Mazing Labyrinth Making

Now, where was I? Oh yes, setting the table. With the labyrinth base ready for action, Charlie and Jacob returned the next day to lay out the edging and create the labyrinth pathways. Vinny had told us a brilliant way to do this which was far more efficient than we would have done otherwise. It made screeding the sand so easy and the edging more stable. You would think this particular job (other than pounding massive spike-nails into the heavily compacted aggregate by hand) would be easy. I assure you that it was not. This was a serious cognitive exercise and I hope that Charlie will thank Mary and me later for keeping his retired brain nimble. Jacob is Mary’s son who just graduated from UConn (Go Huskies!) and who, while able to calculate angles and perform geometric feats, has still not received a job offer for those of you needing an incredibly smart, dedicated, and fun business associate. (Jacob is interviewing with numerous companies so act quickly if you want to snap him up!)

(A little aside: do you know the difference between a maze and a labyrinth? That’s the question I like asking the students when I do presentations about the garden. Some hands inevitably come up and sometimes the answer is close to being right but not quite. I always ask if anyone’s gotten lost in a corn-maze and explain that in a maze there are dead-ends. In a labyrinth there is just one continuous path that usually leads to a center then returns back on itself. Many times a labyrinth is made using concentric circles. We chose a pattern which looks like a maze but in which young children won’t get lost. We want them to be able to navigate the labyrinth by themselves to increase self-confidence. This is accomplished by risk-taking and adventure in a safe setting in which they can succeed.)

Laying out the pathway of our labyrinth was actually like being in a maze: it was easy to get lost. The process of counting how many 18”x18” pavers up from the entrance, and how many rows over, and trying to remember which length was a walking path and which was to be a planting bed, as well as where the ends of each section were, took some serious mental concentration. Then, of course, you had to step out of the maze and stand back at a distance, counting and measuring again. This exercise took two days. Jacob needed to leave at 3:00 on Wednesday but, due to his fierce dedication, he stayed until around 5:00. I joked that the labyrinth was actually the “Hotel California”— you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave! Sure enough, Charlie and Jacob were back at it on Thursday, determined to beat this puzzle . . . and they did!

It really was cool watching them create it, measuring with a T-square, and making sure that there was exactly the amount of space for the pavers and not any more or less. We needed near-perfection in order to make it easier to actually lay the heavy pavers. Did I mention that they worked through the pouring rain? Well, that’s dedication, my friends!

Meanwhile, I had run to Pride’s Corner in Lebanon to pick up native grasses that they donated (thank you Prides!). Pfizer volunteers would be planting them the next day. On the way back I noticed a small business, Construction Materials Inc. in North Lebanon.  I wanted some flat rocks to dig into the soil around the waterfall to create safe pathways for entry into the falls. Grasses, on the other hand, would be used to dissuade children from entering at spots that were less desirable entry points. I decided to pop in and see if this business would donate a few rocks. I told the proprietor about the garden and he was impressed with the idea of allowing kids into the falls as most people try and keep kids out of them. I told him that this garden was the opposite of most, that we want children to go off the paths, climb on the boulders, pick the flowers, and smell the leaves. He too believed that we need to get kids off their electronic devices and out in nature. He showed me a pile of perfectly-shaped stones and told me to take whichever ones I wanted. How’s that for the universe providing?!

I am stopping here so we can post all of the labyrinth creation photos, my car full of grass and rocks, and my dog Lulu’s disgusted look for taking up her sacred passenger space with plants. There is so much to share (thank God) that these posts get lengthy. Stay tuned for my post about Friday, when the Coast Guard Academy and Pfizer volunteers came and kicked some serious dirt!

  • Jacob uses a screed board to level the sand in the edging channel while Charlie checks the fit of a paver
    Jacob uses a screed board to level the sand in the edging channel while Charlie checks the fit of a paver

Everything Will Be Okay

I have to tell you that I wrote an awesome blog post last Wednesday. It was first inspired by fear and then gratitude after having my first-yet garden meltdown and my friends coming to the rescue. Maybe it was like the fish that got away, but it was really big, I mean really good, and I deleted it by accident. Do you know how your computer just shuts down on its own and auto-save captures where you left off? Well, you have to click on a button when the computer comes back on and that’s where I got into trouble (sob). So all the “lessons learned” that I was going to share are gone. All the real-time anguish about having to get the labyrinth base “table-top” perfect, gone. All the words of wisdom that I took to heart from the paver manufacturer and the best mason in my world, Coast Guard Vinny, gone. But, luckily, gratitude does remain!

So I’m going to start with Vince, who I call CG Vinny to protect his identity from other needy people like me. I won’t go into the details (because I already did and then deleted them) but basically, he came to the garden on a Sunday with his wife and four children (how he even made time for us is a miracle in itself) and assessed the pathways, the crab claws/legs, and the body of the labyrinth. Vinny gave us so much advice our heads were spinning. There were three of us, Mary, her husband Jeff, and me. Between the three of us and Mary’s copious note-taking, we were able to follow his advice which saved so much time and effort it was ridiculous. Vinny’s many years of experience translated into a labyrinth that will be sturdy and long-lasting. I am so thankful.

Tuesday morning, after texting Vinny the correct measurements for the height of the edging and photos of the pavers placed in it for emphasis (yes, I had messed up the initial calculations) he assured me that we were good and that gravity was our friend (at least the paver’s friend). Whew! High stakes! With Vinny unable to make it to the site, friends Charlie, Dean, and Jacob (my rescuers) set about helping to create the table top. We did everything Vinny had told us earlier, measuring from the top down to get our height, running lines from the highest elevation, and swiveling the set line in every direction. The guys hauled wheelbarrow load after load of heavy road base while Mary and I raked and measured. Then the guys re-measured and tamped the whole thing with a commercial plate compactor, measuring, adding, and compacting some more. Holy cow was it a lot of work to flatten that 20’x20’ space equally! In the end, we SET that table! (Fist pump!)

I was expecting approximately ten volunteers from the Coast Guard that Tuesday afternoon but I especially needed help laying 75-pound pavers in the labyrinth, which wasn’t even close to ready for them (another reason for my meltdown and the friend bailout). I wasn’t even sure we’d have the base prepared by the time they got there in the afternoon (it wasn’t), let alone having the edging installed (anguished sigh). On my way to the site, however, I’d received a phone call telling me that something unexpected came up and that eight of the USGC volunteers had to postpone until later in the week. I’d almost passed out with relief. Postponing the brawn was the universe at work for sure!

The three CG volunteers who were able to come (brawny but few) started digging out the main pathway, leveling it off, and filling it with an aggregate base. This was hard work since the soil was heavy and wet, but needed to be done for the geo-grid pavers that are to be installed within the next couple of weeks. So Tuesday ended up being such a perfect day. What had I been stressed about? Charlie reminded me of the saying sometimes attributed to John Lennon: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” On that note, this blog post has to end because it’s too long and that’s okay because it’s not the end!

  • Annette’s panic moment: is the edging tall enough for sand and pavers?!
    Annette’s panic moment: is the edging tall enough for sand and pavers?!

Nathan Hale Art Everywhere!

Last week, fourth- and fifth-grade art students from New London’s Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School finished their magnificent mosaics for the amphitheater—yay! Art teacher Jeffrey Wolfson developed the Art Everywhere curriculum to have students create art that can be installed “everywhere” in our community. Last year Jeff’s class created an outdoor, glass-tile mural for their school’s courtyard with the help of two well-known mosaic artists, Gwen Basilica and Deb Aldo. The mosaics for our project, done with porcelain tiles, was a little different from that installation so there was a new skill set to teach and many new students learning to mosaic.

Beginning in February, the students developed their designs, did practice paper mosaics, and even did a small brick-sized mosaic to practice technique. Gwen and I went in to assist when we could, but it was Mary (see Something about Mary blog) who took on the task of working with the children four days a week. Mary worked with Jeff to teach and then guide the students through mosaic-making, keeping them focused on things like space between tiles, staying within the border of the paver size, finding the right piece of the “puzzle” to insert to execute the design. When it was time to work on each mosaic for the amphitheater, Mary helped them move from concept to design with all of its challenges. For example, one child didn’t have room for an octopus with eight legs, so they kept removing legs until it became a pentapus!

Mary clearly missed her calling as a teacher but made up for it by being a diligent mosaic mentor. She also took on the sole responsibility for thin-setting and then grouting all 72 student-design mosaics and 66 mosaics of the color wheel element of the amphitheater (yikes!)  Not wanting to expose the students to the caustic chemicals in the thin set, Mary developed a different method, having them use diluted school glue to adhere the tiles to paper. Once the mosaics were completed, Mary put mosaic tape on the face of the files, soaked off the paper backing, flipped the mosaics over and applied the adhesive, along with mosaic mesh. Once that was dry, she flipped them over and grouted them. Mucho Trabajo!

This project was a ton of work for everyone involved, but having the children participate in the garden’s creation is key to making it a true community garden. Sometimes we take for granted the things we have in our community. Being part of the creative process, however, gives each citizen ownership or at least a connection to the space. Giving elementary school students the opportunity to contribute in such a visible way should be empowering. Having teachers that are willing to take on, or seek out these opportunities as Mr. Wolfson has, is remarkable and should be applauded. This is one great way of teaching citizenship and stewardship.

The kids will be coming out to Avery Point for a field trip to see how their artwork fits into the garden. I’m smiling as I write this because it is exactly what I envisioned when I applied for the grant. I wanted our community’s children to create something special for the children who come after them and to learn through doing. I hope that the NHAMS students will feel pride in what they have created and how they played a role in the creation of the garden. I also hope they learned about the garden itself and why it’s important to spend time in nature. Finally, I hope that they and their families will visit the garden often. Maybe they’ll even come back with their children someday and share with them the lessons they learned.

"Pentapus" NHAMS Mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS Mosaic, pregroutNHAMS octopus mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS shark mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS starfish/fish mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mermaid mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS seascape mosaic, pregroutNHAMS fish mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS seaweed mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS shell mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS seascape mosaic, pregroutNHAMS dolphin and starfish mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS boat/whale mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregroutNHAMS mosaic, pregrout

Earthfest CT 2019

Yesterday was Earthfest CT 2019 at McCook’s Park in Niantic. We had a great turnout despite the wet weather. We had a booth “Neuron’s in Nature” to tell everyone about the cognitive garden and the need to get children in nature for sensory stimulation. I had four high school-aged helpers who showed the children how to make neurons with pipe cleaners, beads, and pom poms. The kids loved making the neurons.  Even the older children enjoyed making them using beads with letters for their names. Some even became neuron bracelets.

Grasso Tech students had grown the marigolds for the children to take home and they were gorgeous, healthy plants. What a great biotech program they have at Grasso. Their greenhouse is amazing! The plants were a big hit, especially with Mother’s Day coming up. Plans were made by many parents and children to plant them together. So the children got to take home a neuron and a little piece of nature.

I had planned to have some coloring pages but with the wet, rainy weather and plenty for the kids to do, I figured I’d wait until the CT Family Festival in New London on June 8. Coloring pages are being drawn right now by a very talented student at the Dual Language and Art Middle School in Waterford. They will be ready soon and I think it will really help spread the word about getting children in nature.

Thanks to all who helped at our booth and to those who stopped by to see what we are all about.

  • Kids making neuron models out of pom-poms and pipe cleaners
    Kids making neuron models out of pom-poms and pipe cleaners

A Garden of Eden

Peter Minuitti, Director of the Landscape Architecture program at UConn and my third mentor on this project, once asked his students, “What is a Garden of Eden?” Being one of his students and a Catholic, I was sure it had something to do with a lush green paradise, maybe with fruit trees, and perhaps even some wildlife (yes I was thinking about snakes).  But it didn’t, at least not necessarily. According to Peter, a “Garden of Eden” must touch each of one’s five senses. If it doesn’t affect all of them, then the few that it touches, it must do so strongly. There were other prerequisites to meet in the definition given that day, but to me, this was the cornerstone: in essence, sensory stimulation. The idea was not to just be an observer but to be touched, affected, perhaps even changed by the encounter.

When I visited the Alhambra in Spain more than two decades ago, it touched me like no other. It wasn’t just the plants that struck me, but also the design. The Moorish arches, the symmetry, the pools and runnels of water, the hardscaping, the statuary . . . the unbelievable strength of the place captivated me. Years later, as I sat in that lecture hall, I finally understood why the Alhambra had affected me so profoundly. It not only touched all of my senses, it slammed into me as if trying to awaken something. Putting the pieces together, I realized that this feeling was something I wanted to recreate for others. It took more course work and two internships to understand who I wanted to create gardens for and how I arrived at creating this children’s garden.

Working on the Avery Point garden design with Peter and Natalie Minuitti, and Tao Wu from the LA Department is such an incredible experience for me. I feel so lucky to have that kind of guidance and support! Today they showed me the 3D model that Tao is building of the garden. It is so tiny and perfect, even though it’s not quite done yet.  Each little detail is painstakingly cut out and glued on so that others will be able to see the garden as a whole. I’ll be able to take this model to the different libraries and events to promote the garden and talk about the importance of sensory experiences in nature.

As Tao is literally “putting the pieces together,” on the model, we as a community, are putting the pieces together in the garden. It is my hope that this garden will touch those who visit in some way . . . to inspire, to heal, to calm, to excite, or just maybe to create a sense of wonder so that they may indeed feel as though they are in a Garden of Eden.

  • Tao places trees (to be planted in the future) into the model
    Tao places trees (to be planted in the future) into the model