The Green Streets

Plants are dying on the inhospital medians, but city horticulturist Bill Vondrasek is working to give summer its bloom.

August 13, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Cars whiz by like unguided missiles while Bill Vondrasek stands on the median strip of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard surveying a disorderly patch of greenery accented with red, green, blue and yellow blossoms. He's mildly displeased. As the city's chief horticulturist, its flower beds are his domain.

"All up and down Martin Luther King on the end paths there are what we call `gateway beds,'" Vondrasek says. "It's a program funded by federal transportation money because this is a gateway into the city, and we want gateways into the city to look nice."

There are 17 of them on MLK, and they've been pretty much on their own since they were put in four years ago. Over the next few weeks, Vondrasek plans to renovate them all. He'll use many young summer community aide workers, who potentially can move into regular jobs in his horticulture division of the Recreation and Parks Department.

"The first thing I say to them [is that] you're going to be in the middle of a noisy median strip, with car exhaust," he adds. "It's going to be 95 degrees with 95 percent humidity. That's what the job is."

And Vondrasek has to pick plants that can survive in the same environment.

"Some of the plant material works," he says. "Some of it doesn't."

Many plants are just not tough enough to live in the inner city. They have to weather Baltimore's summer heat and dry spells, survive winter road salt and pop back up when stepped on.

"We put these [Knockout roses] in, which are doing extremely well," he says. "And the Russian sage that is popping up between them does extremely well."

The purple Russian sage is the kind of tough plant he likes. There's lots of beautiful sage in the large beds at the end of the Jones Falls Expressway, and also across Fayette Street down President Street.

"It's really drought tolerant," he says. "So like when we don't get rain for a long time, this stuff still lives."

But the black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers are not doing as well as they might out on a wild prairie, where grasses are abundant and the plants are scattered and huge semi-trailers don't roam.

"My theory is that there isn't enough plant material [here] to keep the roots cool," he says. "The sun is able to get right to the soil and really start cooking it and then the plants really start declining."

So he's going to dump the coneflowers completely and put in a more drought-resistant variety of Susans.

"By trial and error, we find out what works and what doesn't," he says.

So the next morning he sends down a crew to begin work on the MLK beds. Fred Finnerty, Vondrasek's chief aide, a supervisor with about 30 years with Recreation and Parks, is in charge, Greg Bledsoe, another veteran supervisor, will help build a wooden retaining wall. Marques Jackson, also a supervisor and the crew chief, started out as a community aide.

The summer workers include Judah Raphael, 19, Jermaine Henderson, 25, Fred Elliott Jr., 21, Wayne Oliver, 25, Vance Liggett, 17, and Tina Smith, 31, the only woman on the job. She's a tropical-plant specialist who'd like to get a regular job with the horticulture division.

They have the beds at MLK and Fayette Street cleaned up and weeded in about an hour. They start work at 9 a.m. because they're not allowed to block traffic lanes any earlier. They're working on the retaining wall by 11.

Judah Raphael, who's an architecture major at Morgan State University, finds himself pounding steel rods through 6-inch square timbers with a small mall. He likes this landscaping work, he says, "but I want to build buildings."

Wayne Oliver has been on the job two months and he likes it even when the temperature approaches 95 degrees. "I enjoy it," he says. "It's a learning experience. ... You get to see more of Baltimore. "

Oliver lives in Sandtown.

"You know what I'm saying, we make it look like a beautiful Baltimore. What they're trying to say is: `Believe.' "

And Fred Finnerty is an understanding boss.

"You make them feel good about what they're doing," he says. "That's the whole thing. You never criticize because they never did it before. You give them a chance at it. Once they see they're doing a good job, then they start feeling good about themselves. And about the job itself.

"And when they drive up and down here, they say, man, I did this, and they feel good about it."

To read other stories in this series, go online to baltimoresun.com/places.

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