Eco-Friendly Landscape: Historic Courthouse Gets a New Look
The Old Historic Courthouse in Carthage is a classic Southern courthouse, the kind you see in movies.
So classic, in fact, that it was in a movie. It was chosen as the setting for "Shelly's Diary," a movie filmed in 2005 that was based on a book by Benjamin Frazier.
The movie was billed as a fictional account "of isolation, southern charm, and murder in Appalachia." The historic courthouse provided a perfect backdrop.
The courthouse site, chosen in 1803, has been home to a total of seven courthouse structures; the current one was built in 1922.
The Old Historic Courthouse, which is on the National Historic Register, is well cared for, but the surrounding landscaping had seen better days. Plants age as people do, and landscape trends change over time.
With the landscaping looking somewhat bare and in need of refurbishing, Cary McSwain, Moore County manager, and his staff , contacted Craven Hudson, Moore County's Cooperative Extension director, to enlist the help of Moore County Master Gardener Volunteers.
Taylor Williams, agricultural extension agent who oversees the MGVs, gave his blessing to their participation in the project.
"I was interested in getting assistance from the MGVs because they are especially qualified and experienced in working on such projects," says McSwain.
As volunteers, they do not charge for their services, which is an added bonus for the taxpayers of Moore County.
Jeffery Parrott, former assistant county manager, coordinated with the MGVs on the project.
"The problems with the landscape offered an opportunity for local MGVs to establish another xeriscape demonstration garden, while helping to restore the courthouse setting to a more attractive presence," says Arlene Hantjis, who leads the Master Gardener Volunteers Xeriscape Project Committee.
The choice of a xeriscape plan helps to further reduce costs to taxpayers because, once established, it provides a low-maintenance and attractive landscape.
"An important aspect of the project was to preserve and maintain the beautiful white oaks surrounding the courthouse," says Hantjis.
A plaque in the rotunda commemorates the planting of the oaks on Jan. 3, 1927. In addition to imprinting a historic signature on the site, the oaks also shade it.
"While selecting xeric, or drought-tolerant, plants for a shady area is more challenging than selecting them for a sunny area, the shade helps to conserve moisture during times of low rainfall, which is an important element of xeriscape gardening for Moore County," Hantjis says.
The courthouse landscaping showed wear and tear from its location at the center of a traffic circle, where it is subjected to fumes from a large volume of traffic using N.C. 24-27, which is the East-West connector between two major North-South highways.
"Because it is situated at the center of the circle, the building and the garden plot are exposed to the elements on all sides," Hantjis says. "The difficult growing conditions make the area around the courthouse most appropriate for a xeriscape garden."
The term "xeriscape" derives from the Greek word Xeros, for "dry," plus "scape," as in "landscape."
The Master Gardener Volunteers Xeriscape Project Committee was established to educate local gardeners on the value of planting xeric gardens in order to conserve water in ornamental horticulture; such gardens contain drought-tolerant plants, some of which are native species.
The demonstration gardens designed by the volunteers serve as an example of what can be done by the average local gardener to develop and maintain an attractive landscape, even during periods of inadequate rainfall and other adverse conditions.
In addition to being drought-tolerant, such gardens are low-maintenance once established.
The original xeriscape demonstration garden, established by the Master Gardener Volunteers in 1996, is located at the Moore County Agricultural Center in Carthage.
Other xeriscape demonstration gardens that are part of the current Xeriscape Project are located at the Senior Enrichment Center on U.S. 15-501 north of the Pinehurst Traffic Circle, and at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities on Connecticut Avenue in Southern Pines.
In 2007 and 2008, at the height of the drought, local gardeners showed interest in xeriscape gardens and the use of drought-tolerant plants as they watched their prized plantings succumb to the scorching sun and extremely dry conditions.
Local workshops on the subject were packed during those dry times.
"Unfortunately, short-sightedness has resulted in some gardeners now returning to water-wasting ways," says Hantjis.
For the project at the historic courthouse, Arlene Hantjis and Diana Adair worked together as co-coordinators of the project, assisted in the earlier and later stages by Patti Cleary.
"The size of the area and the amount of work involved required a team of MGVs to accomplish all of the necessary tasks," Adair says.
As many as 25 Master Gardener Volunteers, including some from the 2008 class, have been involved with the project.
Bobby Lake, Moore County Property Management supervisor, and his staff worked closely with the team, providing much needed consultation and heavy labor.
"We appreciate the help provided by Lake and his staff, especially the physical support provided in clearing out extensive debris, removing old plants, tilling the soil and adding soil amendments to support the new plantings," Hantjis says.
Such a project is not as simple as digging a few holes and plopping in some plants.
For landscaping to be pleasing to the eye, considerations include scale in relation to the building and to other plantings, the view from various sides of each planting area, year-round interest, color and variety of textures.
For the landscaping to be viable, factors such as terrain, site location and growing conditions in each section of the property are major design issues. Growing conditions include amount of light (sun/shade), exposure to wind, moisture, proximity to auto fumes, foot traffic patterns and existing irrigation installations on each section of the property.
Because the site has exposures on all sides, temperature variations are a major factor: Temperatures can vary by several degrees between one location and another, making growing conditions a prime consideration.
Initial work on the project began more than a year ago, when 14 soil test samples were taken in April 2008. The hot, dry weather of the summer and early fall months delayed planting until late November, and the cold weather halted additional work during the winter.
With the warmer weather that April brought, the team completed the installation of 24 different kinds of plants, more than 200 total, including perennials, trees and shrubs.
Hardscape is an important part of a landscape, and the team had that covered too.
A short walkway of Pennsylvania bluestone was installed leading up to the obelisk on the McReynolds Street side.
"This provides access to passers-by to read the inscriptions on the obelisk honoring World War I hero James Rogers McConnell, which had been all but impossible to view," Hantjis says.
Once the plants and hardscape were in place, the planting areas were mulched to prevent weeds, to protect the plants and to add that extra finishing touch.
Plant identification signs showing both botanical names and common names have been installed, and detailed plant information sheets will be available in the courthouse lobby.
Although extra maintenance and irrigation will be needed until the plants are well established, the xeriscape design should ultimately serve to reduce costs by requiring less water and less maintenance, something that all taxpayers should appreciate.
This project has been a true community effort with cooperation between Moore County Government and staff, Moore County Master Gardener Volunteers and local businesses, several of whom provided materials at wholesale prices.
The project has been a positive experience for both the Master Gardener Volunteers and Moore County government, says Cary McSwain
"We appreciate the volunteers who have worked on the project," he says. " I am extremely pleased with the new look at the Historic Courthouse."
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