Going green at Toll Gate High School


The students of Toll Gate had grown accustomed to passing the overgrown, weedy hill near the rear entrance of the school. The rest of the grounds near the entrance facing the student parking lot were well-groomed, with a memorial garden and student-maintained vegetable and flower garden in the vicinity. But a gnarly hill of invasive plants and vines detracted from the beauty of the students’ walkway.

Marjory Stevens, a science teacher at the school who once owned an herb nursery, had the idea to beautify the eyesore. Student members of Steven’s “Club Green” were involved in maintaining a nearby garden space, but clearing and landscaping the adjacent slope would take a team of professionals.

About two years ago, Stevens met Catherine Weaver, a professional landscape designer and architect. The pair talked about their shared love of gardening and horticulture, and soon Stevens was talking about her ideas for the school.

Weaver agreed to help, but a year was soon gone and no work was done. Then Weaver put the project into motion last year by reaching out to friend and colleague Alan Muoio, who owns Lawn Beauticians and the Forest Hill Nursery.

Weaver is a current member of the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association (RINLA) and Muoio is a former RINLA board member.

Muoio agreed to donate material, time and labor, and Weaver concentrated on design and installation. As soon as Stevens heard that the pair was on board, she ran the idea by the school and the city. Everyone was in favor of beautifying the space, and the city of Warwick agreed to donate compost and boulders. Stevens also had some of her science students prune, clear the brush and haul the debris to the woods.

When Muoio and Weaver arrived on scene, they knew they had a lot of work ahead. The area was overgrown with weedsand on a steep hill, which meant they had to carefully structure their landscape.

“We’ve both encountered those spaces many times and we had no misconceptions about how much work it was,” Weaver said. “We had no misgivings about what we were getting into.”

Last April, Muoio and his team arrived at Toll Gate with excavators, and cleared the grapevines and brambles. Weaver, Muoio and their team worked for three days on site, with other RINLA members donating services.

The project at Toll Gate was done entirely with donations, and Weaver and Muoio estimate its value is close to $50,000. The boulders alone, about 40 of them, would cost between $100 and $125. Weaver estimates about $30,000 worth of plant material. Muoio paid his workers out of his own budget and Weaver said her own hourly rate isn’t cheap.

“You’ve got to want to do it,” said Muoio. Muoio also recently donated time and materials to Cranston High School East for re-landscaping the front of the school.

“I didn’t even go to East,” he said. “I went to West.”

Weaver said the landscape industry is very generous and, “The people who work the land are, by and large, very giving.”

Stevens is grateful for that. By the end of the three-day job, Muoio, Weaver and their teams had transformed the weedy hill into a beautiful slope of evergreens, shrubs, flowers and stone.

“I have paraded all of my kids out to see the before, the during and the after,” Stevens said.

She said the reactions of the faculty and staff has been positive.

Mayor Scott Avedisian said the project was great, not just because it beautified the school, but because the students had the chance to be involved with something positive.

“It’s great to see young people think about the environment,” said Avedisian, who thinks students will respect it more because of their involvement. He said it also reinforces the idea that they can make change happen. After its completion, Stevens took her students to the finished garden.

“They said, when it was all done, ‘We helped do that,’” said Stevens. “It was really great to see them make the connection to what they did to help make that happen.”

Stevens said the students will stay involved with the maintenance and upkeep. Weaver said she has received requests from other schools. Inspired by the project, Weaver is looking into starting a program called “Random Acts of Greenness” through RINLA’s non-profit Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Institute (RINLI). Through the program, which is still in its planning phase, Weaver said RINLA members can sign up to donate time and materials to community projects. She also hopes to create a bank of surplus plant material.

“Maybe that can become plant material that, rather than going to the chipper, it gets recycled, re-purposed on a school site, because it’s something that schools don’t often have the budget for,” said Weaver.

She said the sites that are touched by “Random Acts of Greenness” will also likely bear signs crediting donors.

“It will give some benefit to professional communities, too,” she said.

For Weaver and Muoio, making the state more beautiful is a part of their profession.

“Our industry is responsible for a lot of quality of life,” said Weaver. “One of the big reasons people choose to make Rhode Island their home is because it’s such a physically beautiful space.”

Weaver said that nature takes care of most beauty, but humans are responsible, too.

“There’s all kinds of data now that shows our experience of the natural environment is a positive experience, and if we don’t take care of that environment, we’re not going to last much longer,” said Weaver.

Stevens also extends a big “Thank you” to Ellen Casey, another Toll Gate teacher who watered the garden over the hot summer months.

For more information about RINLA or RINLI, visit www.RINLA.org.


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