Garden for Nature Grantee Experience

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West Cook Wild Ones Native Garden Grant

By Barbara Rose

Reprinted with permission from Conservation@Home Cook County’s Fall Newsletter

When West Cook Wild Ones announced a new grant program in January 2020 to engage young people in native gardening, few guessed the challenges ahead.  By the time the ground had thawed, Chicago-area gardeners were sheltering at home amid a history-making pandemic.

Most of the 14 organizations selected to receive Garden for Nature grants were closed or functioning remotely, so their grounds temporarily were off-limits.  Grantees included schools and nonprofits from East Garfield Park to River Forest, Cicero to Palos Heights.

A notable exception to the closures was Rush Oak Park Hospital, which was feeling the full force of COVID-19.  Rush became the first grantee to plant- adding milkweed, goldenrod and coneflower species in early June to refurbish a small “healing garden” outside a parking garage.

Staff of Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Gardens got creative when summer camp sessions were cancelled. They invited families to sign up to work in successive groups planting a 200 square-foot pollinator garden in June.  Siblings and cousins learned about natives from environmental educator Tara Rosenwinkel as they chose their favorite plugs, dug planting holes and patted them into the soil.

Parents at Lincoln Elementary School in River Forest added more than 60 plugs and small plants to a garden and parkway, where the native landscaping will augment curriculum when students return to classrooms.  Parent Amy Hansmann shared with kindergarten teachers what they could find in the main garden outside their classrooms: “our different types of butterflies, bees, tons of grasshoppers and how to find our resident frog,” she reported.  “We may not be the best gardeners in the world but we are definitely succeeding in creating wildlife habitats!”

COVID restrictions stalled planting at Oak Park’s Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, but learning is going forward with help from two trained volunteer evaluators for Conservation@Home; Joan Davis, Master Gardener, and Len Piersialla, Master Naturalist with University of Illinois Extension.

“Len is unbelievable, adding so much information and providing sources that are perfect for kids,” says eighth-grade science teacher and project coordinator Laura Stamp, who is counting on Joan for design help.

Stay tuned for more Garden for Nature news in Spring 2021. West Cook Wild Ones is a local chapter of a national nonprofit that educates landowners about their landscaping choices.