Lessons in landscaping

David Dewar had an idea for a beautification project at his school, and the teacher and landscaping hobbyist gave himself a summer to build an outdoor classroom.

He soon realized he’d underestimated the work involved. By then, the social studies teacher had torn up the courtyard at East Cobb Middle School in Marietta. With mounds of dirt and holes everywhere, he had to finish.

Three years and an estimated 2,500 man hours later, Dewar, 31, on Friday finally cut a ribbon on the project. It’s an oasis — with plants, water and seating — in the heart of the school.

He did most of the work alone. Parents and teachers sometimes showed up with shovels, a friend built the wooden benches and pergola overhead, a fellow teacher and students helped raise money, and local businesses gave discounts on materials.

For the most part, Dewar hauled away the dirt and wrestled the stones and bricks into place on his own, sometimes working 30 hours over a weekend, well into the morning. Often, he sent text messages to a fellow teacher at 3 a.m. “I’m going home now,” the messages said. “You don’t know how many times I sat at this wall and asked, ‘What is wrong with me?’” Dewar said.

During this effort, Dewar suffered a back injury from a car accident and dealt with the death of his father. He continued his work even after he was transferred to a nearby high school.

The end result was a peaceful spot, with a gurgling fountain and stones laid in a manner reminiscent of a wild stream. He chose plants that bloom year-round in a symphony, each painting the rocks in a different season. The flowers draw butterflies and hummingbirds.

When it was a barren slope next to a brick wall, children previously littered the area with juice boxes and pencils, said Andrew Trowers, whose classroom was next door to Dewar’s. On a recent afternoon, the courtyard was pristine except for an expletive scrawled in pencil on a corner of one of the benches. After all, it is a middle school.

Trowers was the recipient of those 3 a.m. text messages and helped out at times during waking hours. He said his friend was obsessed with getting everything just right, and wanted to build a no-maintenance courtyard.

“He’s a perfectionist, to the point where he would say, ‘Drew, we’ve got to move this over here,’” Trowers said. “And I’m like, ‘We just cemented it!’”

So what possessed Dewar?

He’d fiddled with landscapes since he was a teenager. He mowed grass for cash when he was 13, and his business grew so much that he had to drop his newspaper route. His interests soon turned toward more ambitious projects when his parents let him tear up the front yard. After several false starts, he managed to build two ponds.

After Dewar moved to Cobb County and started teaching at the school, Trowers learned of his colleague’s hobby and asked him to expand his backyard patio. A neighbor of Trowers’ admired the work and hired Dewar to do his yard, too. Word got out, and soon Dewar was remodeling the yards of a half-dozen teachers at East Cobb Middle School.

Dewar started a business called Backyard Oasis, but put it away after a chance conversation with Trowers. They walked past the deteriorating courtyard in early 2008, Trowers recalled, and Dewar told him it looked horrible and he was going to do something about it.

Dewar sketched a plan, secured the principal’s approval and he and Trowers set out to raise money. Trowers, a language arts teacher, wrote grant applications based on research that correlated aesthetically pleasing surroundings to the students’ desire to learn.

“It was a stretch with some of the studies,” Trowers said with a shrug, “but we thought it made sense.”

So did Lowe’s corporate office, which contributed $3,500. Students raised another $3,000, and parents and teachers contributed a few thousand dollars, a considerable sum for a school with a large population of poor students.

Local suppliers, such as Cornerstone Wall Systems, gave steep discounts on materials.

On a recent afternoon, when Dewar showed his masterpiece to a visitor, a woman walked by the courtyard. She stopped and introduced herself as Willa Machado, a teaching assistant.

During the construction, she brought her kids out every Monday so they could figure out what had changed over the weekend, she told Dewar.

“We come out here and sit every day,” Machado said.

Dewar smiled. He had occasionally questioned his sanity while laboring under the moon.

“Thank you,” he said. “That’s exactly what I wanted when I built it.”