Maplewood Opinion Schools / Kids South Orange

Opinion: Let’s Make Ritzer and Underhill Fields Sustainable Grass Classrooms

[Editor’s note: Jane Conrad is a former Director of Programming at Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, and Seth Boyden parent and gardening teacher 2002-2012.]

Dear Editor:

Climate change is upon us.  What we really need to do is to get better at understanding the natural systems around us, and do better at taking care of them before it’s too late.

If Ritzer and Underhill Fields are truly “classroom space,” let’s use them to help students understand and do their part to manage living, natural grass fields and the soil food web that sustains them.

If we do this, our students will be better prepared to understand and act in the world that awaits them.  For example, we are going to have to massively reform agriculture away from the petroleum-based system of the past 70 years, toward a model based on soil health.  We are going to have to build more resilient forests. We are going to have to learn how complex natural systems function and interact, so we can observe changes in them in the years to come, and understand which interventions will help and which will not.  The knowledge and hands-on experience of maintaining natural grass can help our students in their future lives as workers, scientists, policy makers, and informed voters.

If we do this, we can also have improved grass fields for gym classes and sports teams, as well as for picnickers and cloud watchers.

A “sustainable fields” initiative like this will require a team approach.

How much improved the grass becomes will depend on the quality of the team we assemble, and the good faith efforts of each member.

I know improvement is possible, because at Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, I have seen the horticulture team maintain 30 acres of natural grass and ornamentals using organic methods, under the pressure of 15 million park visitors annually, the ash of 9/11, the salt water flooding of Hurricane Sandy, and other big-city challenges.

A sustainable fields team could include:

1) A horticultural field consultant

This should be a person with a track record in organic field design and management. They could:

  • Assess existing conditions, including testing soil not only for physical properties but also for soil biology, presence/absence/ratio of desirable microorganisms, etc.;
  • Recommend remediation efforts if needed;
  • Design a maintenance program going forward for the personnel we have;
  • Carry out training/demonstration activities for team members 2 and 3 below.

2) Regular field users, including sports teams and gym classes

Since a grass field and the soil that sustains it comprise a living system with self-healing capabilities, if small problems are addressed quickly, they don’t become big ones. This means there is an important role for those who use the fields frequently: to see problems and do quick repairs. This can be as simple as:

  • Keeping a “field repair kit” consisting of a garden fork (or other aeration tool), watering can, compost, and grass seed in a small tool shed with combination lock adjacent to the field, and
  • Making “quick strike force” field repair part of the clean-up routine after practice or a game.  This is not difficult. At Seth Boyden Elementary, I helped first graders fix bald spots on their playing field during recess.  Also,
  • Keeping an online log for each field, where each team would report on conditions, repairs undertaken, and make suggestions and requests.  Example: “Grass thinning 10 feet in front of goal. Aerated, applied grass and compost, watered. Suggest moving goal 10 feet to right before next practice.”  Maintaining a field log facilitates communication and accountability, and will let the horticultural field consultant assess progress.

3) Environmental science teachers and their classes, perhaps in partnership with the CHS Environmental Club and the Horticulture Club  

  • Could use microscopes to assess soil and compost biology
  • Could learn scientific methods for improving soil organically
  • Could collect compost materials from local businesses (e.g. Starbucks coffee grounds), keeping them out of the waste stream
  • Could learn how to extract beneficial microorganisms from compost so they can be watered into a field
  • Could conduct field tests to measure the effectiveness of different interventions on grass height and thickness, etc.

Grass is not indestructible.  Neither are our planet’s ecosystems.  But treated right, there is no better surface for kids to play on. Here is an opportunity in our community for students and adults to work together toward a common goal that benefits all.

Jane Conrad

Maplewood, NJ

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