116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
These workers labor only outdoors, and pretty much whenever they feel like it.
CEDAR RAPIDS — Brucemore’s newest work force was seen lying down on the job Tuesday afternoon, which was understandable since the temperature outdoors climbed into the mid-90s that day. The crew was livelier Thursday morning.
These workers labor only outdoors, and pretty much whenever they feel like it.
Sports teams have their GOATs, as in “greatest of all time,” an honorific most recently bestowed upon retired tennis star Serena Williams. But the hungry hired hoofs at Brucemore are goats every day, performing an essential landscaping service.
They are on hand to clear weeds and underbrush from the timber along Linden Drive, following the curve to Crescent Street SE, preparing the land for restoration planting.
That area was especially hard-hit by the August 2020 derecho, which throughout the 26-acre historic estate, destroyed 450 major trees, representing “about 75 percent of our canopy,” David Janssen, Brucemore’s executive director, said.
What: See Goats on the Go in the Brucemore timber
Where: 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: Likely through next week; estates gates open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Admission: Free to walk or drive through the grounds
“To our knowledge, no other cultural landscape in U.S. history has lost more in one day than Brucemore did on Aug. 10, 2020. … We’re still losing trees to the storm. So it’s an exciting opportunity to be the greatest comeback in U.S. history.”
And 45 goats from Goats on the Go Dubuque are blazing the trail. They come from Cox Springs Farm in rural Peosta, west of Dubuque, and will be at Brucemore at least another week.
“We have about two acres of woodland that needs to be grazed, and a herd of goats continuously graze one acre in about a week,” said Brett Seelman of Seelman Landscape Architecture in Cedar Rapids, heading up the historic estate’s landscape restoration. He also is covering the goat rental fee, which he said ranges between $1,000 and $1,500 a week.
“I said I’ll donate this because it’s that important,” Seelman said. “It’s important to really take this approach as we’re going through restoring the estate. This is really the most ecological and economical way to restore and to manage and to conserve the property.”
See for yourself
The estate’s gates are open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, so visitors walking or driving through the grounds can see the goats at work or rest.
But the animals are penned inside electric fencing set back from the locked 7-foot deer fencing, so don’t expect any close encounters with the foragers. The goats are far enough back that if you’re walking through, you cannot reach over and pet them.
“There are enough of them that you’ll see them in the timber,” Janssen said. “But there will be no goat yoga. It's not a petting zoo. They're there to do a job, so we want to stay out of their way and make them work.”
“They’re very entertaining,” Seelman added. “It’s been incredible to watch how much joy they’ve brought — and it’s a goat. But they bring a lot of joy, and they’re doing a lot of work for us.”
Seeing them lying down on the job was sweet, too, on Tuesday, when they just weren’t so hungry.
“It’s very similar to people, who do tend to eat less when it's extremely hot,” Seelman said. “So, the fact that we had that 94-degree day, they do not eat as much. And they can only eat a certain percentage of their body weight, so you are going to see them taking a few breaks throughout the day.”
Animal of choice
“Because elephants are too expensive,” Janssen quipped. Turning serious, he noted: “Fundamentally, we are recovering from the derecho, which is a long process. We’re going to put upwards of 300 to 400 trees in that timber in October, and we needed to clear the invasives that were really thriving with all the sunlight we’re getting.”
Seelman added: “Goats, and livestock in general, for grazing, is a best practice. One of the things with working with Brucemore, is they’ve been very receptive. An initiative of our restoration efforts is that we do best practices as we’re going through the estate. As David said, post-derecho, we have so many invasives that have just taken over the ground plants of our properties and of our woodlands.
“At Brucemore specifically, honeysuckle, multiflora rose, black locust, garlic mustard, Oriental bittersweet — these are all invasive plants that are thriving in the amount of sun that the woodland gets right now. And fortunately, they’re some of goats’ favorite food.”
Employing goats as groundskeepers may sound novel, but it’s nothing new.
“It really is a practice that’s been around for hundreds of years,” Seelman said. “We knew that they would snap up these invasives. They’d go places where people can't get or other larger animals can’t go. And they’re light-footed, too, so they work in terrain (and) they aerate the ground plane softly.
“It allows us to reduce the amount of machinery that we have on the property and in the woodland, preserving the trees that you do have still standing. And it also really helps us reduce the use of harmful chemicals,” Seelman said.
Most the timber trees slated for fall planting at Brucemore are being donated by the Monarch Research Project in Marion. The organization, dedicated to restoring native pollinator habitat in Linn County, also established the Planting Forward initiative in response to derecho damage in the region hardest hit by the 140 mph inland hurricane that destroyed 950,000 trees in Linn County alone, according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources estimates noted on the Monarch Project’s website.
Along with following best practices, Brucemore’s landscape restoration also is casting an eye toward environmental evolution since the early 1900s, when the Douglas family hired landscape architect O.C. Simonds, a proponent of the regional prairie landscape style.
What worked in plantings then, may not work now and in the future, from an environmental standpoint.
“We want it to be sustainable. We want it to be storm-resistant,” Janssen said. “We know that the climate is changing, so a native species that thrived here 100 years ago, that Mrs. Douglas and O.C. Simonds designed, might not be the exact same species to thrive here in 2022 or 2032. We’re really trying to approach this with an eye toward the environment, as well as the design of the built environment.”
Visitors will see a variety trees in various stages of growth, well beyond sapling size. The plantings will include about 240 native deciduous trees, Seelman said, which will grow to 50 or 60 feet, including hackberry, tulip tree, white oak, shingle oak, bur oak, pin oak and some elm trees. Another 120 or so native shrubs, which will grow to 15 or 20 feet, also are part of the plan, including dogwood, serviceberry, American filberts, sumac, viburnum, elderberry and witch hazel.
In terms of a designed landscape, “this woodland was a created moment on the estate, and part of that was this veil of evergreens behind the pond,” Seelman said, “so we are also planting white pines scattered in behind the pond.”
Landscape restoration throughout the estate is expected to take three or four years, and cost in “the high six figures, if not a million-dollar process,” Janssen said. “I would anticipate that we’re going to need to run a mini campaign to help with the cost.”
Phase One involves replanting the woodland. Phase Two will run from the pond, through the gardens and up to the Garden House on Crescent Street. Phase Three will focus on the front lawn and the area surrounding the mansion.
This fall marks the first concentrated planting effort.
“We’ve done some spot planting here and there, I think just for our own emotional health,” Janssen said, adding that experiencing and dealing with the derecho’s destruction has been hard on the staff. But this woodland effort helps turn that corner.
“It's really energizing,” Janssen said. “This staff, like this community, has been through so much in the last two years. In the midst of the pandemic, the property that we have all chosen to protect and to preserve, as part of our career, was devastated. We lost four generations of growth. And I think especially for the buildings and grounds crew who are out there every day, coming to work every day for a year … with all those broken and mangled trees, was really horrifying.
“This has been a marathon and not a sprint, and I knew that, and we tried to remind everyone of that. But it’s really gratifying to begin to see the evidence of that work resulting in many trees going in the ground, and some really fun things going on in the landscape,” Janssen noted.
“We live with this every day. … We have scores of people walking through every day enjoying the property. Thousands come on-site for events and programs, and our landscape has absolutely always been part of that experience. So I think it’s an inspiring moment for this staff and for everyone who loves Brucemore.”
Seelman echoes that sentiment: “This is the community that my wife and I live. I think one thing that we can all relate to, is this storm impacted everyone that lives in Cedar Rapids.
“For me, the greatest satisfaction will be seeing this landscape really change and evolve over time. There’s a lot of youth on the Brucemore staff and on our team, and I I think having this group work hard towards the next 20, 30, 50 years of restoration will be very rewarding.
“As David said, this is a designed landscape, and so there’s a lot of parameters and infrastructure that we’re using as we’re going through decision making, much of which is guided by the Department of Interior standards,“ Seelman pointed out.
“And I always say, these aren’t decisions that you decide on or I decide on, but we’re asking ourselves, ‘What would Mrs. Douglas do here? How would O.C. Simonds respond here? And so it’s almost as if they’re walking along with us in the garden as we’re asking ourselves questions of what we should do and how we should do it.”
The historic estate was built between 1884 and 1886, and Margaret Douglas Hall, the mansion’s final resident, designated that the property be donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation upon her death in 1981, to benefit the community. In that spirit, Janssen noted that the grounds will be open throughout the restoration period.
“As we have for the last four decades, we invite everyone to come and enjoy the property,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to make it available, and we love having people come through.”
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