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Plans for the Commons at Hermann Park, a 26-acre round of park renovations to be completed in 2023, include loads of highly visible upgrades: a zoomy new playground with a 40-foot rocketship slide; an oak-shaded sitting area across the street from the Texas Medical Center; and a significant increase in bird- and pollinator-friendly habitat.But the most revolutionary part of the plan is an ecological intervention that will barely be visible at all, because it takes place mostly underground. On roughly 7 acres, Hermann Park is working to restore its soil’s health — taking measures more often associated with regenerative agriculture than with public pleasuregrounds.
Regenerative agriculture aims not just to be sustainable, but to improve land’s ecological health, particularly its soil. That can mean letting go of plowing, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides — all of which degrade soil health over time — in favor no-till farming, compost and animal manure, and crop rotation that includes cover crops grown to protect or feed the soil.
The method’s proponents list reams of benefits. Among them: healthier crops and more profitable farms; carbon sequestered in soil; better water quality; more biodiversity; and better ability to withstand both floods and droughts.
For those reasons, regenerative agriculture has become a hot topic not just at farmers markets but in corporate boardrooms. Companies such as General Mills, PepsiCo and Patagonia have begun partnering with regenerative farms to shrink their products’ carbon footprints.
But in a park? Particularly a heavily used Beaux Arts jewel, more than 100 years old, in the middle of Houston? In a place where looks matter?
Hermann Park isn’t the first park to use regenerative techniques on its soil — the park’s landscape architecture firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, took a similar radishes-and-rye-grass approach to the restoring parkland at the base of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch — but the practices remain rare outside of agriculture.
Christine Morgan, a former professor at Texas A&M and now head of the Soil Health Institute, said the Hermann Park project marked the first time she’d heard of regenerative-ag techniques applied in such a place.
“I’m surprised,” she said. “I think it’s outstanding.”
Doreen Stoller, president of the Hermann Park Conservancy, zipped along park trails in a golf cart Tuesday, stopping at a waist-high stand of cereal rye grass: a strange sight in the manicured park. An explanatory sign, headlined “Nature Returns,” described the coming attractions of the Commons at Hermann Park, lest visitors think the staff missed a spot while mowing.
The Commons will occupy the southwest part of Hermann Park, from the eastern edge of the Houston Zoo to the park’s border with the Texas Medical Center. The new habitat portions — the 7 acres whose soil is being restored — are spread throughout the project, on land previously covered by mowed, non-native turf grass: the sort of stuff that covers most suburban front yards.
In a normal high-profile landscape architecture project, a new garden’s plants would be installed all at once. Soil preparation — tilling and adding compost or fertilizer brought from somewhere else — would take days, not months, and most definitely not more than a year. That preparation isn’t great for the soil’s long-term health, but it’s fast.
Instead, Hermann Park is deploying three rounds of what soil scientists call “pioneer plants”: super-tough plants that improve the soil in various ways. They look weedy, Stoller admits. But they were picked for their abilities, not their looks: “We’ve got over 100 years of soil compaction to deal with.”
The rye grass, the second round of pioneer planting, is a winter grass, almost at the end of its season. After it dies, it’ll compost in place: a “green manure” that’ll add a layer of organic matter to the top of the soil.
The first stage, Stoller laughed, looked even weirder. Daikon radishes are root vegetables that resemble fat white carrots. This fall their knobbly leaves and pale shoulders gave the park the raffish air of a loosely tended vegetable garden. Daikons — also known as “fracking radishes” — are renowned for their ability to penetrate stubborn clay soil. Instead of harvesting them, the park left them to rot in place, creating tubes of organic matter below ground level.
Hermann Park master naturalist Diane Kerr isn’t yet sure what summer’s third and final round of pioneer plants will be. Maybe pigeon peas, a legume that’d add nitrogen to the soil; or milo, a grain that, like rye grass, would add bulk and organic matter. Like the radishes, both plants are better known as food crops — but here, producing food is not the point.
The cost to seed the soil-prepping plants, Stoller said, will total around $28,000 — a tiny fraction of the $51 million in private funds the Hermann Park Conservancy is raising to build and maintain the Commons, a new dog park and annual shows of temporary art.
This fall those pioneer plantings will at last begin giving way to the park’s equivalent of a cash crop. Volunteers and staff will begin planting an artfully arranged ensemble of seeds and plugs — mostly perennials native to the Houston area, such as inland sea oats, dwarf palmettos and horseherb. As those mature, the scraggly beds will at last begin to look not just intentional, but beautiful.
“It won’t look messy and wild like a real prairie,” Stoller said. “It’ll look like a garden.”
‘The roots grow deeper’
A couple hundred years ago, most of Hermann Park’s land was wild tall-grass prairie. The new design will use some of the native plants that likely grew there, and they’ll perform the same ecological services.
Kyle Wolfe, a master naturalist who coordinates Hermann Park’s volunteers, said that plants native to Houston-area prairies have deep roots, penetrating as far as 15 feet below the ground. Those roots open space in the clay soil, allowing rainwater to penetrate far deeper than it would, say, if following the shallow roots of turf grass.
How much could soil-improvement projects like this help Houston avoid flooding? It’s hard to say. But to get a sense of the possibilities, consider a study done for the Katy Prairie Conservancy. Non-native grassland in the Houston area was found to absorb only 0.7 inches of rain per hour. Prairie land, with its healthy soil and deep roots, soaked up 4.8 inches per hour — nearly seven times as much.
Glen Miracle, owner of Laughing Frog Farm in Hempstead, has used regenerative-agriculture techniques for almost 15 years, with deep attention to things like cover crops and livestock rotation. He’s proud of his soil. After Hurricane Harvey dumped 45 inches of rain in one night, he says, neighboring farms stayed underwater. His absorbent land was ready to be worked the next day.
Miracle was delighted to hear that Hermann Park is using some of the same techniques that he does. “I never use a tractor. I never till. Little by little, the roots grow deeper. The microbes and fungi build up.”
The longer he uses regenerative agriculture, he said, the more enthusiastic he becomes, and the more his soil improves. “The hardest part,” he said, “was getting started.”
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