SALT* – Bill Niering’s Legacy

A field botany class tries to keep up with Dr. Niering. Photo credit: CT College Arboretum Annual Report, 1999

Dr. William Niering had been a professor of botany at Connecticut College for over 40 years when he died in 1999. He was a renowned scientist and the rare one who also had Attitude and was willing to take a position on controversial environmental issues. Bill’s home grounds are an early example…a modest ranch house in a 1970’s subdivision near New London. Typical layout and construction, where the land is cleared and stripped of topsoil, tract homes laid out identically, surrounded by lawn. Even so, Bill managed to arrange a covenant in the subdivision prohibiting mowers to be operated on Sunday…not for religious reasons, just so one would be free of the noise of gas-powered vegetation management.

Bill himself planted his small acreage so that only paths were mown. First, he installed a white cedar hedge along the street to screen his yard. Ground covers, ‘tho not necessarily native species, and ferns filled in around the grey birches and cedars except for a mossy path. A small stand of white pines dropped needles enough to cover the ground in the side yard…he called it The Pinetum. His back yard had a substantial vegetable garden and a meadow experiment with little bluestem and wildflowers. The meadow was just small enough so that the annual burn would be completed and fire doused before the smoke had been sighted by the fire department. The west yard was the only open lawn, and the location of his “solar dryer” (a clothesline). There was a push mower that did the grass-cutting job and also stood as a sculptural piece in the garden.

Bill and his mentor/colleague, Frank Egler (aka Warren Kenfield), pioneered a vegetation management technique of selective herbicide on tree species, favoring shrubs in power line rights-of-way, instead of the broad-brush, kill-everything method typically used. There are several publications by the CT College Arboretum related to Bill’s research on vegetation management.

In 1997 Bill Niering conceived a program called SALT (*Smaller American Lawns Today) – education and outreach to homeowners about alternatives to lawn. The college bookstore began selling push mowers as a featured item! Now there is an annual one-day seminar with speakers on native plants, wildlife habitat, design, and energy conservation in the landscape. Contributors to the Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens blog have been presenters. As Bill’s last graduate student advisee (MA in Botany), I was among the speakers at the first seminar in ’03, Doug Tallamy in ’09, Sue Reed last year, and Catherine Zimmerman this year. I encourage anyone within driving distance of New London to attend this typically very informative program on November 5, 2011.

CT College Arboretum also hosts an annual two-day symposium for landscape professionals in mid-January – a college in the Philadelphia area is host for a duplicate program in that same week. It’s called New Directions in the American Landscape. The presentations are geared for advocates of native plants and include design, landscape history, ecology, landscape construction, paleontology and genetics, plant propagation, wildlife habitat, and much more.  The NP&WG blog team members above have again all been presenters. Check out the 2010 brochure and get on the mailing list so you can see the agenda when it is sent out in December.

© 2011, Ruth Parnall. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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    About Ruth Parnall

    Ruth Parnall’s favorite business card would be “Ecocentrist:  Curator of the Native Landscape.”  In reality, the cards of the two main threads of her professional life say “registered landscape architect and botanist” and “co-principal of Learning by the Yard, Consultants for School Grounds.”

    As the former, Ruth has a design practice focusing on low-impact site design and native plants.  She has also, for the last twelve years, been Landscape Curator for Manitoga, the woodland garden of Russel Wright in the Garrison, NY. As the latter, Ruth and Ginny Sullivan (author and educator) design for children’s experience in lush natural habitats, teach teachers, and inspire all who will listen.


    1. Carole Sevilla Brown says:

      What a great story, Ruth, of a true environmental pioneer! If each of us reduced the size of our lawn and planted native plants for wildlife habitat, it would make such an incredible difference to our environment. Thanks for sharing this!
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Lets Just Eat the Invasive Plants

    2. Gloria says:

      Now there is someone you should know. So few of the men and woman that have left their mark on environmental education are know outside an intimate circle. Just the other day Ben was saying there are so few people but its not true. There are many, and they are everywhere.
      Thank you for introducing us to another person that left a legacy in environmental education.
      Anyone want to start a “Someone You Should Know” series? Not hollywood stars but the people that are out there doing the work of conservation or education in the environment.
      Gloria recently posted..Harvesting seed.

      • Ruth says:

        To Carole, Gloria, Sue and Debbie -

        Thanks for the comments. Many of us still miss Bill…he had a very wide sphere of influence, and indeed, I am honored to have worked with him. The Someone You Should Know series sounds like a great idea.

        Here’s a short remembrance I wrote for Ecological Restoration when they did memorial issue:


        The chalkboard should be ten times larger. He explains ecology in a profusion of diagrams—writing words with emphasis, circling them as he revisits the thought—underlining the same words once and later, reaching wide to do it two, three times more—scooping hair back, out of his eyes—striding, turning, pausing—reaching again to touch those underlined words.

        With slides on the wall in a bigger room, the choreography is elegant—a wooden pointer lifts in an outstretched hand, marking vegetation on mid-slope or semi-crest; while the back hand, sometimes the leg, stretches in opposition and balance—the lock of hair again scooped back in place.

        We all can speak to Bill’s attributes both intellectual and scientific—the persona known to those who read his work. But who of us watching him lecture or lead a field trip will ever forget his presence?

    3. Sue Sweeney says:

      Ruth – very informative — living in Southern Fairfield, I had heard Bill Niering’s name but had no idea what awesome work he had done.

    4. Debbie says:

      I attended my first SALT workshop a few years ago and it was so informative and very well -planned and carried out. I’m thrilled to hear about the two-day symposium in Janaury, I’ll have to add it to my calendar.
      Debbie recently posted..Winsome Wordless Wednesday


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