Urban Remediation Project
in Charlottesville, Virginia

By Kathleen Maier

Five years ago, I made the move from rural, Rappahannock Co., Virginia to downtown Charlottesville. I had been stewarding 25 acres that was a blend of meadow and woodlands.

The city property that acquired me had a large house and under.25acre. Yet the adjacent lot was a 2-acre woodland and an abandoned field, which I thought, was owned by the city. The day I came down to close on the property, bulldozers appeared and began construction for a condominium project called the Belmont Lofts. While we were able to save a good portion of the woodlands, needless to say there was great “re-arrangement” of the landscape.

Last spring the residents of the condo approached me to help them with their landscaping. From that request I designed an eight-month course, Healing the Land, Healing Ourselves with environmental consultant Christine Gyovai. This was a permaculture-based eco-design, medicinal plants, and restoration course taught through Sacred Plant Traditions (www.sacredplanttraditions.com). As part of this class, we studied the area by conducting a site analysis. We did this by taking soil samples and compiling a species inventory of what was currently growing in the area. The class then used principles of permaculture to work towards creating a design that will increase the biodiversity and wildlife habitat of the site. We specifically choose plant and mushroom species that have regenerative properties and are capable of breaking down the excess of nitrogen and other toxic residues in the soil as well as medicinal plants that are native to the area, some of which are included on the UpS as well as Virginia watch or endangered species list.

The land immediately to the North of the site where the condos were built was a brownfield site (contaminated site) that the City of Charlottesville entered into the state of Virginia’s Voluntary Remediation Program, a program to clean up contaminated sites administered by the Department of Environmental Quality in 2002. A railroad runs through the site, and in the past this location was used as a dumping ground and refueling area for the rail system and the city. The soil has been tested and found to contain arsenic and other heavy metal contaminants. Remediation was completed to state standards by bringing in approximately 2 feet of new fill to cover the area, and some revegetation was established on steep slopes. The land was then sold by the City of Charlottesville and then privately developed into the Belmont Lofts condos.

After four months of studying the principles of permaculture, the students drew maps of the meadow area we were restoring. Texts for the course were Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual and primarily Toby Hemenway’s excellent primer, Gaia’s Garden . We developed a walnut guild by planting a variety of currants as well as other species compatible with Juglans nigra such as Rose of Sharon whose flowers can be eaten. We received a discount from local nursery Edible Landscaping and planted Juneberry, Paw Paw, Ume Apricot, Nanking cherries, Persimmons, Dwarf Weeping Mulberry, 3 types of blueberries, Figs, Raspberries and wineberries. Owner Michael McConkey donated two American Filberts as well. Jeff McCormick of Garden Medicinals and Culinaries also donated a number of goldenseal rhizomes, false unicorn root and American ginseng.

With the grant from United Plant Savers we purchased the above mentioned trees as well as the following from Enchanter’s Garden in Hinton, West Virginia: Goldenseal, Twinleaf, Ginseng, Wood Betony, Devil’s Bit, Wild Geranium, Trillium, Bloodroot, Black Cohosh, Spikenard, Feverwort, Wild Yam, and Indian Pink. The woodlands project was also an area where we did diagnostic energetic readings as taught by Stephen Buhner in landscape reading. What was profound was that the results of the readings reflected an area of conflict, arguments and “border wars”. The history of the site revealed that this woodland area, next to the train track, was a site of cockfights and gatherings of questionable merit. The relationship the developer of the condo has had with the neighbors was also contentious, to say the least.

These last points are to me the most profound healing that has occurred from this project. After three years of head banging, heart wrenching attempts to work with the developer, I surrendered. I placed the UpS botanical sanctuary sign on a tree and with a spring equinox ceremony offered my services to the land and let go of the “plan”. The following spring, the residents themselves were then the ones who asked for help. I write this as an inspiration for others whose projects may be confronted with what seems to be insurmountable odds. I know that engaging in prayer and working directly with the spirits of the land enabled this project to move forward. It is also so fascinating to see that the history of the land lives on in some form and that this is played out (i.e. border wars) until a healing and release can take place. I must say that the woodland soil was not amended much due to budget and time constraints. We did spend time working with the land energetically and the plants look vibrant and strong.

The last project that we undertook was a riparian buffer restoration project adjacent to the condominiums on land that is owned by the City. It is a wetland area that is a major contributor to Charlottesville’s watershed. There was a commercial landscape business that was piling mounds of compost close to the creek. The excessive levels of nitrogen from the run-off were destroying the creek. The City of Charlottesville is currently developing a watershed plan that includes recommendations for enhancing buffers and streams within the city, and this project is in line with the city’s watershed plan. The restoration included building swales at the bottom of the culvert opening to pool the run off. We stacked bales of hay behind the swales and planted nettles for nitrogen fixing activity. We also seeded spores of King Stropharia mushrooms in order to set up a mycoremediation site.

None of this would have taken place without the community efforts of the students involved. Many thanks to Jeffery Brown, Ginger Collier, Terry Lilley, Linda Peck, and Kristen Roberston. It was their tuition that financed the project. It was their energy that beautified the garden. They wrote letters and received gifts such as the UpS grant, a beautiful garden bench, a truckload of hardwood mulch and other donations. With this level of dedication and the miracle of sheet mulching, many green dreams can flourish.

Kathleen Maier is an herbalist and Director of Sacred Plant Traditions, A Center for Herbal Studies where she teaches one to three year community/clinical herbal training programs.


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