'Sandbox Garden' to Help Kids Understand Native Plants

By Casey Cora on June 18, 2014 7:19am 

 Volunteers have created a small garden in the McGuane Park playlot.
Volunteers have created a small garden in the McGuane Park playlot.
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DNAinfo/Casey Cora

BRIDGEPORT — A small playground sandbox at McGuane Park has been turned into a learning garden filled with native plant life, courtesy of some green-thumbed volunteers.

"The sandbox was sitting there and no one was using it. It's something that we don't need so we decided to do away with it. ... This is going to be an interesting experience for the kids. So far everybody just loves the idea," said Mary Welter with the McGuane Park Advisory Council, which helped organize the planting earlier this month.

Casey Cora explains what's happening to an underutilized South Side sandbox and the role it will play with a nearby park:

The sandbox has already been replaced with soil and several species of native plants, each with its own fascinating history.

The Compassplant, for example, takes its name for its coarse leaves, which straighten out in a north-south direction to avoid direct mid-day sunlight. Another is the Rattlesnake Master, a wildflower that's discarded seed pods were used as toys for Native American children.

"Some of the these plants have been around for 14,000 years or so but we've pretty much drilled them out of existence," she said. "Who knew?"

The kids garden was designed by Kris Sorich, a senior landscape architect and Bridgeport native. The plants, selected by park steward Sam Mattone, were paid for with a $400 grant from Friends of the Parks.

Sorich said she designed the garden — which will have some plants that grow upward of 5 feet — with kids in mind.

"When you design an educational garden, you want to be able to examine the plants from all angles. What we want is to have the kids really see the plant material," she said.

Soon, children will be able to pick up a map showing where the sandbox plants are growing next-door at Palmisano Park, a grassy 27-acre park that was once a landfill for construction debris. The maps will be available at the McGuane Park field house.

The learning garden project at McGuane Park precedes a forthcoming, unrelated project from the Landscape Architecture Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based group that sends student and faculty researchers to American parks to quantify the environmental, economic and social benefits of public landscape projects.

The student-faculty research team from the Illinois Institute of Technology is expected to begin its research later this summer.

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