Ralph Cornell Society Focuses on Native Landscaping

The newly formed Ralph Cornell Society of Native Landscapers at Pomona College has begun work on a sustainability garden directly outside Frary dining hall, with the goal of planting drought-tolerant native plants.

Founded last semester by Nik Tyack PO’11, Patrick Halliday PO ’11, Peter Pellitier PO ’14, Julia Pitkin PO ‘13, and Na’ama Schweitzer PO ’13, the club aims to remove unused turf areas on campus and replace them with gardens of native plants that will not require irrigation.

“Replacing under-used turf with native landscaping has the capacity not only to conserve drinking-water quality water in a region of the country with serious water scarcity issues, but also reduce carbon emissions since half of our water is pumped and transported at great energetic cost from the Colorado River, hundreds of miles away,” Tyack said.

According to Tyack, two thirds of Pomona’s water use currently goes towards landscaping.

“If water’s so precious, you should think about what you’re using it for. So we shouldn’t just put turf as a default,” he said. “You don’t need to water native plants because they’re used to this area so they don’t need more water than they get.”

The founders named the club in honor of Ralph Cornell, a Pomona graduate of 1914 and supervising landscape architect between 1919 and the 1960s, who supported the planting of native plants. In his 1912 essay, “Wanted: A Genuine Southern California Park,” Cornell criticized the “general tendency [in Southern California] to make parks as artificial as possible,” in which “plants entirely foreign to such an environment are grotesquely perched where they must serve a life-long sentence of struggle for existence under conditions entirely adverse to their developments.”

According to Tyack, the club hopes that the Frary garden, which they have named the “Ralph Cornell Memorial Garden,” will illustrate the beauty and practicality of native landscaping projects on campus.

The club has worked with the Pomona Grounds Department to identify and prepare sites for planting. While this process is primarily a sustainability initiative, Tyack also noted this process has given students more agency in determining the environment they live in.

“It’s started a great conversation between students and Grounds, and that’s something about the club I think is really cool. It’s making Pomona and the landscape more interactive with students, and the people who are living here have some input into what it looks like,” Tyack said. “[The Ralph Cornell Society] is a sustainability focus club, but at the same time it’s also about aesthetic, and it’s giving students the opportunity to design parts of the landscapes on campus.”

Though the club is student-run, it are advised by Pomona biology professor Frances Hanzawa, who specializes in native plants.

“My expertise is native plants and since the goal of the group is to plant native plants, I’ve been here to answer their questions,” Hanzawa said. “We’ve talked about the selection of plants, and balancing aesthetics with finding plants that are able to support the native insects. We want to create patches of native vegetation that will support a community of native animals.”

Tyack added that the planned landscaping projects will make the natural environment at Pomona more lively, with native plants attracting more hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.

Removing turf areas is a time intensive process, taking eight months to remove the turf and weeds before planting can begin. Therefore, this semester the club will focus on identifying more turf areas for removal over the summer so they can continue planting next year. Tyack emphasized that only unused areas will be taken into consideration.

“The goal isn’t to remove turf that people like to use but think more about our landscape and where we are,” Tyack said. “I think it would look better keeping all the turf people like now, but removing the turf that are kind of in the interstitial spaces and are a default for the college, replacing it with native hybrids or native plants.”

In addition to the Frary garden, the Ralph Cornell Society is engaging in a variety of other planting projects. They already had their first planting outside of Brackett Observatory, where 21 club members met on Jan. 29 to plant the drought-tolerant “Pacific Mist” manzanitas. Thursday, members of the club also joined together to plant California poppies in the wildflower portion of Frary garden, Tyack said.

The club will also bring local native landscape architects Bob Perry of Cal Poly Pomona and Bart O’Brien from Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden to campus to speak on native planting later in the semester.

The President’s Sustainability Fund is funding the club’s current projects. Established on a yearly basis by Pomona President David Oxtoby, the fund gives money to projects that “focus on infrastructural or operational changes instead of outreach- or education-focused efforts,” according to the Pomona website.

Janet Ma contributed to this article.

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