Sometimes, not even being a prize-winner can save a landscape from demolition. Just ask Mark Fockele, owner of Fockele Garden Co., based in Gainsville, Georgia, and the man behind a sustainable garden for the charter school his children attended.
The Smartville Garden at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy earned a Grand Award for a commercial project from $100,000-$500,000 from the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) and a similar designation for a commercial project from $75,000-$200,000 from the Georgia Urban Ag Council.
However, when the decision was made to build a new school at the site, the garden became nothing but a memory and photos for Fockele, the volunteers who helped build it, and the children who enjoyed it.
Fockele stresses that it was primarily a volunteer project.
“It wasn’t a company project, although it used a lot of company assistance to get it done,” he says. “The principal asked us to help start a garden on the school property. We started with a little area and a bunch of volunteers and got some interest going, and then we added to it over the years as it went along.”
The garden went in over approximately a five-year period that began nine years ago, and Fockele explains that not only was the Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy looking for a beautiful and inspirational garden, but they wanted something that would serve as a resource designed to fit the school’s curriculum, including a component called “Nature Smart.”
“The garden’s design and installation methods would also correct existing erosion problems,” he says. “Stormwater runoff had caused erosion. The topsoil was gone and the remaining soil supported only weedy grass and a few trees.”
Further adding to the challenge was a lack of designated pathways for foot traffic, which had compacted the soils. An historically severe drought and the local water restrictions that followed brought additional concerns, as did utility lines both above and below the site.
And, summer vacations would leave the garden untended during the peak growing season.
Additionally, the .7-acre site had to support a wide range of uses and many users including students engaged with their teachers in class sessions, school counselors finding a quiet place to work with a child, para-professionals escorting whole grade levels of children from the building to the playground, and parents, staff and visitors crossing to and from the parking lots to the building.
Given so many constraints, site preparation was certainly one challenge with the job.
“Determining the locations and functions of communications cables, electric, gas, water and sewer lines was challenging but essential to the project,” Fockele says. “It was especially important because the rainwater collection and distribution component of the garden depended on tying in to the school building and its utilities. And, since dense plantings were to encompass the entire space, accurate utility location was critical to tree planting, bed preparation and irrigation system installation.”
When a courtyard was added to the project later in the process, the irrigation system grew to include a total of seven various storage tanks — both above and below ground — harvesting rainwater from the school’s roof, and roof and downspout repairs were made during the initial installation.
Not only did pump sizes and locations have to be carefully selected to match water delivery needs, but it also had to be determined how they could best support the landscape, which incorporated swales, primary and secondary basins, a bog, and a green roof on the pump building.
“Through research and expertise, we designed and built a versatile and interesting water collection system that also provided maximum teaching and learning opportunities,” says Fockele.
Grading was complex because the school is bounded by sidewalks and required use of a silt fence. Fifty feet of sidewalk, a metal canopy, and unwanted plants and trees were removed. The Bermuda grass was scraped and composted onsite.
Fockele explains that his staff participated in projects that required technical expertise, as well as providing instruction to the volunteer teams. Necessary garden tools were stored onsite.
Choosing the plant palette for the garden also required expertise. Extensive research was required to identify and source the uncommon plants that integrated with the rainwater infiltration system. Ultimately, the garden incorporated more than 70 different species and more than 1,000 plants were used.
“We used a lot of big, strong, wild plants with textures and good colors — all the things that kids like,” he says. “They like spiky stuff and bright red colors and scent and things that attract butterflies and bumblebees and hummingbirds.”
He notes the Smartville Garden also provided a wildlife habitat with plants for food and nesting, feeders, birdbaths and birdhouses.
It’s the array of unusual plants used in the project that makes Fockele most proud.
“When the season was high, and the garden was full and in-bloom, it was really a beautiful sight,” he says.
However, he adds that closely tied to that is the integration of the plants and the water conservation measures. The largest infiltration pond on the site was approximately 30 foot by 20 foot by 1 foot deep and could hold a great deal of rainwater.
“It was the integration of the right plants with the rainwater infiltration system and good soil preparation,” he says. “There were years when we didn’t have to take even the harvested rainwater, except for new plants.”
It’s that same combination of plants and what the project did with the water that provided Fockele with the most personal education. However, he says he’s always looking for opportunities to include sustainability in his projects and he likes to introduce the idea to customers who are interested in including sustainable features in their home landscapes.
“It’s fun, we enjoy doing it and it makes sense,” he says.
Fockele adds that he was still learning as the project wrapped up, since aside from the soil preparation, the hardest part of the garden was dealing with on-going maintenance.
“We were gradually working toward trying to reduce the need for any repeat maintenance problems,” he says. “By that, I mean the predictable maintenance problems you can see coming from year to year.”
The decision to tear down the school building and the garden along with it was a controversial one.
“We thought it was a shame to lose the landscape,” he says. “The children really enjoyed it, and that is an important part of this story. It was fun to see the kids relate to the garden, and they seemed to learn quite a bit.”