by Pamela Grundy and Andrew Whelan
As part of our ongoing effort to make air pollution visible, Clean Air Carolina has built and maintained dozens of ozone gardens at schools and other venues through our Clean Air for Kids program. Last week, we brought our campaign right to the steps of the governor’s mansion.
On a beautiful Monday morning, landscaper Ben Skelton and his crew arrived in Raleigh to lay the groundwork for a joint ozone, bird, and pollinator garden at the North Carolina Executive Mansion. Co-sponsored by Clean Air Carolina, Audubon North Carolina, and The Butterfly Highway, the garden will feature native plants that provide food and resting spots for birds and pollinators, and will educate visitors about air quality and ozone pollution.
Skelton and his crew met with Charles Dixon, the Executive Mansion head gardener, at the corner of Blount and Jones Streets just outside the entrance gates. There they quickly got to work, planting native viburnum, juniper, pink muhly grass, and St. John’s wort. The flowers, seeds, and berries these plants produce will provide months of sustenance for birds, butterflies, and other pollinators.
Crews also planted cutleaf coneflower, a bioindicator for ground-level ozone, one of the most harmful air pollutants in North Carolina. Breathing ozone irritates our lungs, causing chest pain and coughing, and making it more difficult to fight off respiratory infections. It is especially dangerous to vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and people with existing respiratory problems. Ozone pollution typically peaks during the summer months as sunlight interacts with emissions from vehicles and factories.
Because we can neither see nor smell ozone pollution, most people are unaware of its presence. Ozone gardens featuring cutleaf coneflower and other ozone-sensitive plants address this problem. High levels of ozone produce a distinctive pattern of damage on cutleaf coneflower leaves — damage that helps make invisible air pollution visible. (To learn more about ozone gardens, click here.)
The garden planted last week has its roots in 2017, when North Carolina First Lady Kristin Cooper, an avid birder and nature enthusiast, coordinated with Audubon North Carolina and Dixon to replace a giant privet hedge at the Executive Mansion grounds with bird-friendly native plants. Ambitions for the garden continued to grow, and Skelton, a Triangle-area landscaper, was asked to design a garden that could also function as an ozone garden and pollinator garden.
Last week’s foundational plantings mark just the first phase of the new garden. Skelton explained that a second round of plantings and garden maintenance will take place in the fall, when the cooler weather will allow a greater variety of plants to take root.
The garden’s sponsors hope that it will inspire gardeners and educators across the state to pay closer attention to every aspect of the North Carolina environment, as people, plants, and wildlife contend with the challenges of population growth and climate change.