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A college gardening group is bringing native plants back and 'rewilding' New Jersey


It's cold and rainy this weekend on the campus of the College of New Jersey. But at least the music of BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music, is in bloom. And students and faculty at the college hope some native plants they put into the ground recently will soon bloom also. It's all part of efforts to make the Garden State a little wilder. Buffy Gorrilla reports.

MIRIAM SHAKOW: If anyone would like to plant some plants, come on over.

BUFFY GORRILLA: Professor Miriam Shakow is excited. She's in her element, getting her hands dirty with students.

SHAKOW: We have a list of native plants that are known to be, you know, good for attracting insects, also ones that are deer-resistant 'cause there's a major overpopulation of deer around here.

GORRILLA: The College of New Jersey is like a tiny town. Everything you need in one place - a bookstore and a bubble tea spot. All is surrounded by impressive collegiate-looking buildings and lots of traditionally manicured lawns - perfect for marketing materials.

SHAKOW: That's the administrative building where the president has his office. On the other side of the steps is where we're going to do the planting.

GORRILLA: Shakow teaches cultural anthropology. She points to a brick building, aptly called Green Hall, as she walks quickly towards a patch of weedy dirt about half the size of a pickleball court. The College of New Jersey is definitely not the first college to rewild, and Shakow says they'd even tried it before, but this time, it's part of a larger, campus-wide initiative to turn the campus into a living lab.

SHAKOW: Eighteen times four. How much is that? Seventy - about 70 plants.

GORRILLA: Today's project is rewilding, or planting native plants. This is so beneficial - easy water management, low maintenance and food for pollinators. Two students who arrive early pull on gardening gloves and start clearing the weeds. Hanna Stutzman is a graduate student.

HANNA STUTZMAN: We are planting some asters, some mountain mints, black-eyed Susans and some irises. I'm really excited for when more people get here. That's when the planting party really starts (laughter).

GORRILLA: Samantha Romito arrives with a bunch of her fellow students.

SAMANTHA ROMITO: So we actually sat in on a talk about the importance of native plants and how much our environment is suffering due to, like, just overpopulation and the amount of industrialization going on. So native plants kind of rebuild and bring native animals back, as well as just, like, bump up the environment.

GORRILLA: Romito is an early childhood special education and psychology major. Students and faculty from across disciplines are here to get their hands dirty.

SHAKOW: Guys, we're planting now. Can we get that shovel?

GORRILLA: Shakow helps people get organized.

SHAKOW: We got some student volunteers from the environmental club. We had some passersby, students who just, you know, wanted to participate or at least came over and ask questions. And then there were various students who had heard about it from their professors and just wanted to come.

ROMITO: It was so much fun.

GORRILLA: Romito was dodging grubs and other invertebrates with her shovel.

ROMITO: There's so many worms.

I didn't know how I would like it going into it, but it was such a blast, especially, like, with everyone doing it - was so, like, inclusive and just, like, making it enjoyable. I guess I like the dirt.

GORRILLA: Now they'll watch the garden grow.

ROMITO: We put rocks near the ones we planted so we could come back and check out how they're doing.

Here, hold it upside down on your hand.

GORRILLA: The ground is a bit beat up, but you can make out the branches of mountain mint and tiny clumps of iris shoots. There's a sense of accomplishment, and Shakow says the College of New Jersey is just getting started.

For NPR News, I'm Buffy Gorrilla in Ewing, N.J.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO THE CLUB") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Buffy Gorrilla