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Students from seeds of change and Amundsen High School teacher Todd Johnson remove invasive species from the school grounds during a March 9, 2024 clean up event. Credit: Provided.

LINCOLN SQUARE — This time of year, most teenagers are eagerly waiting for summer break. But a group of students from Amundsen High School, 5110 N. Damen Ave., are looking forward to tending their campus garden once school lets out.

About 25 students created the Seeds of Change group last year with the goal of learning how to garden in an ecologically responsible way.

Their first act was to remove invasive species, like English Ivy and White Mulberry, from the school grounds. They waited for the “dead of winter” to start ripping plants out of the ground while they were weakened by the cold, Amundsen senior Stella McKenna, 17, said.

The hard work of digging into the frozen ground was worth getting to watch the initial bloom of the newly planted native garden this year, McKenna said.

Now that spring is here, students are getting ready to transplant seedlings of native plants they’ve been germinating in their classroom seed vault.

“It definitely pays off, especially in the next few years when I come back to visit, to see what this club has turned into and what the garden is like then,” McKenna said.

Amundsen High School student Tori Geschrey, 18, mists seedlings in the seed vault on April 12, 2024. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Ecoglobalsociety
Seedlings growing in the club's classroom seed vault on April 12, 2024. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Ecoglobalsociety

As part of their campus restoration work, students have partnered with the 40th Ward’s chapter of Openlands TreeKeepers to remove invasive plant species, prune over 70 trees and “donut” mulch 112 of the 118 trees on the school’s campus, said Jim Javenkoski, a parent and co-sponsor of the gardening club.

“It's so interesting to see so many students come out, especially on volunteer days on Saturday mornings,” Javenkoski said. “You wouldn't expect a lot of high school students to show up for something like that.”

Students keep returning to work on the garden because gardening feels therapeutic, junior Melanie Perez, 16, said.

“I like seeing new life grow from the seeds we’ve planted. What really intrigued me about this club, and why I keep coming back, is that it’s really relaxing. Gardening is my escape from the stress of school,” Perez said.

Knowing she and her fellow students have a hand in transforming the garden is also incredibly rewarding, Perez said.

“We’re a part of changing [the campus] to create a new environment not just for us, but also for the pollinators and animals around us, all the wildlife in the park,” Perez said. “And unlike a textbook, you can see it happening in front of you. And that gives you a better understanding about how different plants have different roles in an ecosystem.”

Left to right: Amundsen High School students Juan Ortega, 16, and Leslie Soto, 17, prepare new seedling trays for the classroom seed vault on April 12, 2024. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Ecoglobalsociety

Javenkoski, a food scientist, sponsors the club along with Amundsen teachers Todd Johnson and Andrew Breen. The three help students learn about urban ecology, forestry, food systems — like edible gardens and broader farming — and climate action, Javenkoski said.

Last year, students harvested seeds from Javenkoski’s native “pocket prairie” garden, about three blocks away from Amundsen. The plants are already adapted to the “microclimate” conditions in and around Winnemac Park, he said.

“Rather than sourcing seeds from California, New Hampshire or Colorado, these are seeds that have very high reproducibility, because they’re from plants already growing in similar environmental conditions,” Javenkoski said.

After cleaning and sorting the seeds, students separated the ones that needed to be cold stratified, which means placing them in a freezer or fridge to simulate a Chicago winter. The rest were stored in the club’s seed vault — a closet in classroom 322, Javenkoski said.

The seed vault has more than 70 native species via seeds collected from Javenkoski's pocket prairie as well as from donations from local native plant suppliers like Christy Webber Farm & Garden, Red Stem Landscaping and Possibility Place, Breen said.

The club won two grants this academic year: a $500 KidsGardening Youth Garden Grant to replace the entrance with sedges and winterberry trees, and a $1,593 grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' Schoolyard Habitat Action Gran to transform the five south parking lot “islands” into areas featuring prairie flowers, grasses and keystone tree species, Breen said.

“We received funding through CPS' Out of School Time project as well to acquire more tools, gorilla carts and cedar wood for the raised beds,” Breen said.

Amundsen High School students harvest seeds from native plants from a pocket prairie a few blocks away from the school on Nov. 7, 2023. Credit: Provided.

With summer around the corner, students have been alternating clean-up days on campus with days when they check on the seedlings' progress and get new seeds in trays so they can start germinating in the vault, Javenkoski said.

The club provides valuable firsthand experience to students who have an interest in environmental stewardship and are concerned with climate change, Javenkoski said.

“We're going to be able to give them the knowledge, skills and abilities to help adapt to the climate they're going to inherit. To make them stewards of a more dynamic ecosystem,” Javenkoski said.

The group has regular garden work days where volunteers are needed to help remove invasive and plant natives flowers and grasses, he said.

The next clean-up dates are 9 a.m.-noon May 11 and June 1. Volunteers should meet at the school's south parking lot at 5110 N. Damen Ave. Those interested in volunteering can fill out this online form.

At the next clean-up days, the club will also be selling native plant seedlings they've cultivated to help fund their efforts.

“We want to make this one of the most climate-resilient CPS campuses in the city,” Javenkoski said.

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