Who Says Teens Don’t Care About Native Plants?

By Diane Powelkahttps://www.wildones.org/download/sfewhosays/sfepodgreen.jpg

I’m very fortunate to work with the Monona Grove alternative students in the “park,” located in the township of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. The park was a rock quarry in the 1930s and ‘40s, and was later used as a landfill. The landfill was capped in the ‘80s, and had recently been used as a highway dumping ground for excess gravel, etc. The whole site is probably 15 acres, and we have 5 acres on which to work.

After visiting the prairie in Byron, Illinois, I had the idea to start a native plants park in the township of Sun Prairie. The town clerk, Claudia Quick, suggested we consider the old landfill site. In the fall of 1994, my husband, Joe, and I approached the town board with our request to turn the old landfill into a native plants park. After getting approval, we proceeded to survey the existing plants and trees. What fun it was to discover the different plants and then flag them for identification!

Student using her legs to leverage a rock into the border
of the new access stairs.

What started as fun soon looked more like a nightmare with the never-ending problem of clearing the area of overgrown vegetation. We would clear an area only to have it become overgrown again. We got help from several groups, including the Boy Scouts of America, Troop #333, who helped put in trails on the southwest side. The area has a lot of spring ephemerals, and we have added more from plant rescues. But another boy scout looking for an Eagle Scout project was discouraged at how quickly his former scout colleagues’ work became overgrown, and went elsewhere to work on his badge.

Luckily the students from Monona Grove were willing to work on these southwest trails. The students, however, wanted an area they could call their own. After discussion with Holly Turnquist, the students’ teacher, we decided to put in trails at the north end of the park. This was a big challenge since there were boulders that needed to be cleared from the steep embankment just to get to the area. But the students were really excited about the site and started putting in the path right away.

 Monona Grove students demonstrating different work ethics.

They cut all the vegetation on the trail and put down wood chips. With grant money from the Madison Area Master Gardeners, we put in railroad ties for steps.

Never underestimate the ingenuity of teens when they face a challenge that they are enabled to solve! We have put in native plants and shrubs, and will be putting in a tree this fall. Additionally, the students have made Aldo Leopold benches and installed a split-rail fence. We also have a picnic table-and-a-half. That’s right – someone cut the wood wrong and we ended up with half a picnic table.

We’ve had some setbacks with the older trails becoming a mess of overgrown vegetation. Communication difficulties with the town road crews led to their dumping piles of road material in front of the trail entrances. Although the piles were moved to a different area, during the process of negotiations we lost access to a butterfly garden, a dry hill prairie, and a woodland area that we developed. We hope to regain these areas in the future.

The last time I was out at the park with the students, one of the them asked me two very interesting questions. “When we have all the overgrown vegetation removed, how are we going to keep it from coming back?” And, “What are we going to plant amongst all the boulders?” This teen was looking to the future of the park. She also said she was looking forward to when it was all cleaned up.

The teens will be back this fall, and I’m looking forward to another opportunity to work with a bunch of great young people. I hope their enthusiasm will inspire others to come work in, or just visit the park.

Diane Powelka is a member of the Wild Ones National Board, and she and her husband are charter members of the Madison (WI) Chapter.

This article appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of the Wild Ones Journal.