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An Interview With Oakland’s Sustainable Gardens Specialist, Aeron Attwooll

Historic Oakland Foundation recently named Aeron Attwooll, a member of our horticulture team, as Oakland’s Sustainable Gardens Specialist. Read the following interview to learn more about Aeron, sustainability, and Oakland’s gardens.

What will you be doing in your new role as Oakland’s Sustainable Gardens Specialist?

I started my work at Oakland as a gardener just over two years ago and will continue my gardening in Jewish Hill and Flats. My familiarity with the area and engaging the horticultural expertise of my Gardens team colleagues allows me to practice new maintenance methods, planting styles, and species selections that can reduce energy and water input while cultivating more native plants and attracting pollinators. 

Outside of hands-on gardening, I am researching and communicating with other organizations to develop sustainability and resilience plans for the cemetery’s gardens. Gardening is fundamentally responsive to the weather, and climate change is already having felt impacts on our weather and seasonality. Observing these changes, communicating with our peers from other organizations, and developing clear goals can help our gardens transition more gracefully to new environmental conditions.

What are some of Oakland’s sustainability goals over the next several years?

I helped connect Oakland with the Climate Toolkit program for museums, gardens, and zoos started by the amazing Phipp’s Conservatory in Pittsburgh. Their guidelines of practices based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have helped us develop two goals for the Gardens team to meet by the end of 2024:

  • Reduce lawn area by 10% and prioritize native plants as replacements
  • Reduce all fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticide usage by 50%

In addition, we are developing our planting records toward creating a public database of tree species in the Cemetery. Oaks are our namesake, and as we plant more oak species on site, the Gardens team is working toward certifying the Cemetery as an Arboretum. As we connect with other conservatories and local nurseries, our living collections will expand in diversity. This will offer more opportunities for research, education, and the flourishing of our local ecology.

How can people implement some sustainable practices in their own yards and gardens?

First, I should say that there are many elements to consider in garden design. Not every practice will be relevant to your property or to your design decisions.

    • If you have lawn grass, every additional day you allow it to grow before mowing helps feed and conserve rapidly declining beneficial insect populations and reduces emissions or energy use. When you do mow, leaving the grass clippings on the lawn helps reduce the need for watering and fertilizing and can help protect insects and soil microbes.
    • In the fall, raking leaves under hedges, around the bases of trees, or into piles that you can let break down into helpful composted mulch over time helps recycle and preserve nutrients and reduce the energy and high emissions of leaf blowers.
    • If you have a cultivated garden, you can use organic fertilizers instead of synthetic and petroleum-based fertilizers where appropriate.
    • Keeping plants mulched and planted in sufficient shade for the variety helps reduce the amount of water you need to provide. When possible, it is also a great option to collect rainwater or use recycled water sources.
    • Planting native, flowering plants to attract and feed pollinators has a very significant impact on local beneficial insects. Much of what may be called ‘weeds’ are also flowering native plants that can be allowed to grow or only cut after blooming out.

What does a sustainable future look like at Oakland?

Much of Historic Oakland Foundation’s current identity came from our response to the damage to our hardscape and landscape from the 2008 tornado. As severe weather events rise in frequency, we can use that experience to make decisions now which move Oakland into a role of preparedness and leadership. Many organizations and communities are facing similar challenges. The more we connect and share with peers, the less we will each have to build from scratch separately.

As we expand our educational programs, our urban oasis of trees and old stone can serve as a refreshing kind of classroom for Atlanta youth to learn sustainability skills. Our gardens can adjust to serve the necessities of reducing environmental impact while maintaining their cultural significance and stylistic design. There are challenges to simultaneously being an active cemetery, historical site, public park, garden, event space, and many more descriptors, but the unique potential of merging these skill sets can offer creative solutions.

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