No garden-variety spring for grounds crew

Grounds crew staff members Zach Haas, of Brocton (left), and Steve Reinei, of Jamestown, finish planting flowers around the new entrance sign. The new gate at Turner Community Center is intended to divert traffic from the Main Gate on concert nights, Saturday turnover and other high-volume occasions. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

After wet pre-season, garden staff creates stunning new entrance, lakeside rain garden

John Ford | Staff Writer

An occasional visitor once said nothing much changes during the off-season in Chautauqua.

Not most years. Certainly not this year.

How about a brand new entrance to the grounds?

Or an extensive rain garden designed to help protect Chautauqua Lake from Institution water runoff?

These projects highlight a typically busy off-season for Chautauqua’s grounds and landscape staff, whose efforts were severely hindered by rainfall heavier than many could recall.

“One of my guys said he had never had water in his basement in 30 years until this spring,” said Ryan Kiblin, gardens and landscaping supervisor. “During the first three weeks of our seasonal preparations, we had a total of one day with no rain. You can’t screen mud to make topsoil, for instance. You cannot edge or cultivate.  We were way behind on basic cleanup, such as leaf residue removal and weeding the gardens. And the lake got so high at one point that its water pushed back up a drain under the Athenaeum Hotel lawn and turned the whole area into a swamp.”

The landscape chief and her crew persevered, though, and have just finished work on a new entrance in front of Turner Community Center.

“This is a signature project for me,” said Kiblin, now in her seventh year as supervisor. “The idea is to divert traffic away from the Main Gate on concert nights, Saturday renter turnover and other high-volume occasions.

“We installed new signage to direct visitors’ attention to the new entrance, in addition to 420 feet of asphalt roadway in front of Turner. Visitors’ vehicles can wait on the new road until they are admitted at the new Turner Gate, rather than string out along Route 394 around the Main Gate.”

And instead of trucking away the dirt displaced to accommodate the new roadbed, Kiblin kept it onsite to construct a berm running its entire length to screen the cars from Route 394.

“We planted 480 shrubs, 35 trees and added 40 cubic yards of mulch to make the berm beautiful,” she said. “I have always wanted to find a way to dress up Turner, and I’m pleased that we could serve an important practical purpose while hopefully making the whole scene more aesthetically pleasing.

“It will probably be two years before we see the full effect of the berm screen, because we purchased smaller plants to save on the budget. But when the plants reach full size, visitors should not be distracted by the sight of the 20 or so vehicles waiting to enter the grounds.”

While workers raced to finish the Turner entrance in recent days, a key element in the Institution’s efforts to protect Chautauqua Lake was completed at the intersection of Peck Avenue and South Lake Drive. Spearheaded by Director of Operations Doug Conroe, the Peck Avenue rain garden is the leading edge of an ambitious stormwater management plan commissioned by the Institution last summer and reviewed this winter by the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees.

“We’re changing our profile to more closely fit with 21st century thinking on water management and protecting the ecology of our lake,” Conroe said. “Dealing with rainwater runoff used to be, ‘get a bigger pipe to take it away.’ In recent years, we have gotten away from that approach, starting with new technology from the catchment zone project along South Avenue.”

Conroe also revealed that the Institution has received two federal grants totaling $700,000 to pursue green initiatives on the grounds.

“We applied last year and got the good news in March,” he said. “We’ll have a more formal announcement and details later in the summer.”

The operations director talked about the new rain garden: “The Peck Avenue project is designed to keep rainwater runoff and sump pump water from private homes onsite and out of the lake. We have built an underground network of pipes, which distribute the water under the garden and to the plants on the surface. The plants are designed to process nutrients from the water runoff. The overall principle is similar to that used in septic fields — without the odor.

“Most communities plan to manage rainwater from two-year storms — the heaviest rain in a two year period. The Institution has planned for a 10-year storm. The grate you can see in the middle of the rain garden will expel water from underground if rainfall exceeds a ten year storm.”

Among the landscape stalwarts making all this progress happen is a woman quite familiar with Chautauqua Lake. Denise Carlson grew up in French Creek, Pa., and married into a family of multi-generational Mayville politicians and civic leaders. A retired Chautauqua County banker and longtime county resident, she is also an avid scuba diver.

“I was shocked to see the bottom of Chautauqua Lake for the first time,” she said. “It was white. It looked like the surface of the moon.”

For those who might be tempted to dive in the lake, Denise reports the clearest water is during March, April and November.

“Wear warm gear,” she added.

Then Denise returned to planting the rain garden, with plants ranging from blazing star Liatris — also called “gay feather” — to red cardinal flowers, blue flag iris and five different kinds of ferns.

Community response to the rain garden, which was built on existing lawn area along South Lake Drive, has been mixed.  Conroe, who plans several outreach meetings during the season to engage residents, is eager to reassure skeptics.

“For one thing, even the heaviest rains should only create a pond effect for a day, at most,” he said. “We have taken care with the plants. There will be no coontails on South Lake Drive! And one other important point: The rain garden is not going to be a mosquito hotel.

“We are one of the more intensively developed areas along the lake. It is our greatest physical resource. We want to be good ecological citizens and set a positive example for others to emulate. The rain garden is one in a series of steps we are taking on that path.”