Fern Fest, Native Plants, & Ecological Restoration

Fern Fest 2006

What exactly is “Fern Fest?” Fern fest is an annual Earth Week celebration and gardening event at Drew.  Students gather each spring to replace a section of campus lawn with diverse native ferns and wildflowers, helping to restore the forest ecosystem that once thrived here.  Small shrubs and trees are also planted. The Fern Fest event also includes other activities, depending on interests of the organizing students: tie-dying, craft and food booths, and bands playing into the evening.  The end results: enhanced biodiversity on campus, a fun community celebration, and some good environmental education for all.

How did the Fern Fest restoration project start? In 1998, graduate student Nicole Roskos circulated a petition calling for the reforestation of the Drew campus – not just the tree layer but other layers of the forest ecosystem that were present 200 years ago.  Large numbers of students, staff, and faculty members signed the petition, and a pilot project was funded by the administration.  The native ferns and wildflowers of this first area impressed all with their beauty, and students then established a fund-raising tradition for expanding the restoration area each year.

Why “native” plants? By planting native species we restore at least some elements of the natural forest ecosystem, which will then bring back other components such as birds, butterflies, and soil fauna.  Instead of a “dead zone” of exotic ornamental plants from distant continents, we create an approximation of the natural forest.  Moreover, many native wildflowers are imperiled by suburban development, and by establishing new populations we hope to help stave off local extinction.

(click on image to enlarge)

Does Fern Fest increase diversity?  Yes.  Where only a few species of scrawny grasses and weeds once grew, some 70 native species have been planted, including 40 types of wildflowers, a dozen species of small shrubs, and a large proportion – 15 species – of the region’s non-swamp ferns.  Fern Fest fundraising has also planted a dozen sizable native trees.  As of 2009, over 5000 ferns, wildflowers, and low shrubs have been planted to form a lush, natural ground layer beneath our ancient trees.

Who does fundraising and organizing for Fern Fest? Two student organizations work together to make Fern Fest happen: the Drew Environmental Action League and the Earth House.   In addition, Sara Webb (Environmental Studies Program Director) and Mike Kopas (Special Projects Director) are knowledgeable about native plants and work together to choose species that will thrive in each year’s Fern Fest location.

What’s wrong with just planting grass and having a lawn? The center of Drew’s campus is deeply shaded by ancient white oaks and beech trees, and none of several concerted efforts to grow turf there has succeeded.  The resulting bare ground was vulnerable to soil erosion and surrounding walkways filled with mud after every storm.  More generally, lawns demand maintenance and are environmentally costly.  Native plants, once established for a few years, will normally thrive with minimal attention.

Where else on campus have plantings focused on restoring nature?  Drew University has a native plant policy. This means that only native species of trees, shrubs, ferns, and perennials are planted on campus.  Extensive native plantings adorn several areas of campus in addition to the  ever-expanding “Fern Fest” lands: along campus roadways from the Forum to the Back Gate, throughout the President’s House area, within the Brothers College courtyard, and all around Seminary Hall, Sitterly House, McLendon Hall, the Townhouses, and the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts.  In addition, a wide diversity of native trees have been planted throughout the campus.  Meanwhile, in the Drew Forest Preserve, we are removing invasive plants and working to restore lost biota of native ecosystems.