What was once gravel walkway and plots of grass along the expanse of Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School facing Clinton Avenue has been transformed into a garden path ripe with native trees and flowers like big bluestem, little bluestem and purple prairie clover.
A group of volunteers with West Cook Wild Ones — a nonprofit that encourages residents and organizations to plant shrubs, trees, plants and grasses native to the region — and Brooks students and parents completed the transformation last Saturday morning.
Laura Stamp, an eighth-grade science teacher at Brooks, said the project was funded by a $1,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Last year, members of the school's Eco Eagles Club raised funds for the garden path by selling flowers and hosting a dodgeball tournament. Sebert Landscape, based in Bartlett, donated hardscaping, such as patios and wooden pathways that are ADA-compliant.
Oak Park residents Carolyn Cullen and Stephanie Walquist, both longtime Wild Ones members, said the garden at Brooks is an example of an easy but innovative way for homeowners to implement some of their own low-cost, low-maintenance solutions to some of the world's most pressing problems — like climate change and resource depletion.
"You don't have to water [native plants] as much, since their roots will go down 10 or 15 feet," said Walquist. "They also pull down carbon. Because the roots go down [so deep], most of the natives, like the grasses, suck down the carbon and then every year the root system dies back a little bit so that carbon is always down in the soil, unless you till it and dig it. Everybody in Illinois should be doing it."
"There are Wild Ones chapters all over the country and people can find out what's native to their area and then plant those kind of things," said Cullen. "The butterflies and other insects that have lived here for thousands of years — that's what they like."
"Illinois used to be 60 percent prairie," added Walquist. "Now, it's [less than 1 percent] prairie."
Native vegetation also requires less maintenance than the non-native kind, the women said. They don't need pesticides and they naturally attract insects and birds that cultivate a self-contained ecosystem. The plants, Walquist said, pretty much regulate themselves throughout the year.
Stamp said the new garden at Brooks will be something of a sanctuary for threatened species of insects, such as monarch butterflies and some bees, which are native to the region but endangered.
For Brooks eighth-grader Jadyn Dale, the garden is home in a different kind of way. Dale's grandmother, who passed away last year, was a garden enthusiast. The 13-year-old, who lugged around a barrel of organic soil, said his own passion for planting was passed down to him from the late matriarch.
"Before she got sick, she would always grow plants and stuff," Dale said. "She'd tell me to come to the backyard so I could help her with gardening. So I kind of learned this from her."