LA GRANGE – It’s not often you see plants like big bluestem, purple coneflowers, goldenrod or New England aster growing in gardens in the Chicago suburbs. But all of those plants, as well as many other native Illinois plants, are in full bloom at the Spring Avenue Elementary School Learning Garden. The garden, which is behind the school adjacent to the playground, features primarily prairie plants that are native to Illinois.
The 1,200-square-foot garden, which began several years ago after the playground renovation, originally had been planted with fruits and vegetables. But Jenny Hall, chairwoman of the PTO Garden Committee, said when she became chairwoman, she wanted to take the garden in a different direction by planting mostly native plants, which are more sustainable.
“We created a little piece of the Illinois prairie. The plants are appropriate for the location of the garden. It has a lot of sun and medium-to-dry soil,” she explained. “We had been trying to grow things that needed a lot of water, and by planting native plants two years ago, once they’re established, they require very little water.”
Hall said originally, each class at the school would plant a crop, so the garden was a way for children to get involved with gardening and to learn more about where food comes from. But, it became difficult to maintain the crops over the summer. Now with the native plants, the children are able to learn more about the plants that were used by Native Americans.
“I hope to get the garden more involved in the curriculum, but it’s hard. I did give a talk to the fifth-graders during their Native American unit in social studies,” Hall said. “I showed them how Native Americans used the plants as food, as fiber for making baskets, and as medicine.”
Rose Naseef, a parent of children who went to the school, was one of two women who began the garden several years ago. While it was just a vegetable and fruit garden while she was involved, Naseef thinks growing native plants is a “fabulous” idea.
“They attract pollinators, they’re colorful and visually appealing and have deep roots that can absorb stormwater,” she said. “It teaches kids about sustainability and conserving water. My goal when we established the garden is to incorporate it into the curriculum and give students an opportunity for more hands-on learning.”
And the garden isn’t just for teaching kids about native plants; it serves an important purpose. It’s a certified Monarch Waystation, which means it has sufficient milkweed plants and water for a monarch butterfly habitat because the butterflies eat and lay eggs on milkweed. The population of monarchs has decreased in recent years, so the school wanted to help do its part to offer a habitat during the monarchs’ annual migration from Mexico to Canada.
“Because of farmland and development, their habitat has been destroyed,” Hall explained. “There are organizations that are trying to build up their habitats because it’s a species that people want to preserve. Monarch migration is considered a natural wonder because they go across the United States.”
The garden also is a certified wildlife habitat, which is overseen by the National Wildlife Federation. This means the garden has demonstrated it has sufficient resources for various species.
“We’ve shown we have enough food, water and cover for birds, insects and small animals. If you just have perennials in your garden, that’s not a certifiable habitat,” Hall said.
Hall, who is an avid gardener, believes every child should have a garden, and the school garden is a way for every child to take ownership. She said they often play in the garden during recess and are amazed some of the plants, which are up to 8 feet tall, are so large.
“It’s important to re-establish native plants and to regrow a native habitat,” Hall said. “And the kids see plants otherwise they’d never see…lots of unique plants that aren’t in home gardens.”