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Medians struggle to stay green

By Joyce Kryszak


Buffalo, NY –

Most modern city streets were designed only with traffic in mind. There was little or no attention given to green space. Over time, some cities revamped their streets adding landscaped medians to make them more attractive. But not all cities thought ahead to what it would take to keep those green areas growing.

In a story prepared for the Environment Report, Joyce Kryszak reports that in one city the volunteers who maintain the plants in the medians - are pretty stressed out.

It is about eight o'clock on a chilly Mothers Day morning. But Linda Garwol is not home snuggled up in her blankets being served breakfast in bed. The volunteer gardener is dodging two lanes of traffic to take care of the shrubs and trees planted in the Main street medians. Well, she said, what is left of them.

"We have some viburnums in here and some spirea...uh, two trees left. Things have been replanted in some of them," said Garwol. "It's a nice project, but it wasn't well-thought out, obviously."

The problems first became obvious soon after the medians were planted a couple years ago. Gawrol said more than 70 trees and shrubs have died.

You see, the federal plan that called for the medians to be added did not include money for maintenance or irrigation. And the cash-strapped city did not have the money or manpower for the project either. Garwol said that is when she and other volunteers stepped in. But she says there simply are not enough of them to get the job done.

It is tough work. It's bending, it's picking up garbage, it's weeding. So, it's not easy to get volunteers, especially at this time of the morning. This is the big problem. To avoid the traffic you have to be up early," said Garwol.

But it turned out that weeding was the least of their problems.

Late last summer, it stopped raining. And, remember? That's right, no irrigation system. Unless you count Sister Jeremy Midura. The Catholic nun started braving the traffic to save the wilting landscape in front of her church. Last summer, every week day morning at dawn, Sister Jeremy dragged five gallon buckets of water between the racing cars.

"They recognize me as the crazy median woman," said Midura. "How many of buckets of water do you have to take out there?" reporter. "Well, we use about 12-14 buckets on the larger median across from Catalician Center and our church. Then about ten buckets over by our school area," said Midura.

But the heroic nun could not provide enough water for all the thirsty plants. There are medians spaced along a two-mile stretch of Main Street. By fall, the city took mercy. Flusher trucks were sent to water the medians twice a week.

And still the trees and shrubs died.

This appears to be a case of bad planning. Experts say anything planted in small medians needs to be drought and salt resistant. They have to be planted in the right kind of soil. And irrigation systems should be part of the plan. Otherwise, experts say cities are just throwing away their investment. We wanted to ask the City of Buffalo about that, but the city did not return our calls.

"Right now, we're walking along what was a Olmstedian bridle-path," said Brian Dold, asistant landscape architect for the Buffalo Olmsted Park Conservancy.

Dold takes us for a stroll down what is now an expansive and lush parkway. Dold explains how Frederick Law Olmsted designed the 19th century boulevard greenspace to be tree and plant friendly. The 30-foot wide median runs the full length of the boulevard. Two rows of gracious elms arch overhead the broad grassy lawn.

Dold said there is more than enough good, rich soil for roots to spread wide and deep. And all that soil holds plenty of water for the trees and plants - even in the driest weather. But then, he said Olmsted was known for smart urban landscape design. Dold said, unfortunately, that is not the case in many urban landscapes today.

The proper plants may not be selected. The proper growing medium may not be there. Irrigation is generally not thought of ahead of time. And that really creates an environment where you're asking too much of a common plant to survive and do well in," said Dold.

But cities such as Buffalo are learning from their mistakes. The new the medians being added down the rest of Main Street reportedly will have irrigation systems, special adaptive soil, and plants that stand a chance of living there.