Catonsville church's native woodlands project grows young minds

Twenty-three students lined up Tuesday afternoon and marched across the grass from Hillcrest Elementary to the grounds of neighboring Catonsville Presbyterian Church.

The children squirmed in the grass as Ron Gunderson passed out plastic bags full of dirt and seeds, which they then scattered across a patch of dirt, planting what will become a native wildflower garden.

The field trip was part of the church’s effort to rejuvenate an open space on their property by clearing invasive species, plant beneficial native ones and build an educational community space.

“We want it to be safe, healthy and also beautiful,” Gunderson, who is spearheading the project, said.

Gunderson, his wife Cindy and volunteers from the church have cleared invasive, non-native plants and planted new trees, bushes and grasses native to the Chesapeake region.

The space between the church and the school was previously an overgrown area that Gunderson said often attracted kids who left bottles and beer cans. Volunteers cut away vines and poison ivy and are building walkways and gardens.

The project was kick-started by two grants: An environmental education grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust for $5,000, and a BGE Green Grant for $3,000.

“It’s not a lot, but for us, it’s a game changer,” Gunderson said. Because of the grants, he said, they were able to hire an arborist and landscaping services.

The Chesapeake Bay Trust grant is one of 400 the organization gives out every year to engage communities in cleaning up the watershed surrounding the Bay.

“It’s great to work with organizations like a church, because they really can engage a lot of people,” Kelly Swartout, the organization’s spokeswoman, said.

She said grants like Catonsville Presbyterian’s not only help engage people in environmental work, but also improve the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed.

“Planting trees for cleaner air, removing invasive species — all of that stuff helps the Bay, because everything flows down,” Swartout said.

The project team is part of the church’s “Peace and Justice Committee,” Gunderson said.

“We feel stewardship of creation is part of our environmental advocacy work,” he said, saying that while the church advocates for policies that protect the environment, it now also follows its own advice.

The church hopes to have Hillcrest classes learn in the woodlands space regularly, as well as the children in the church’s childcare program.

Mary Beth Capka said her second-grade class is currently learning about pollinators and native plants, so the church’s woodlands project fit right in. When she asked her students to name pollinators, nearly every child’s hand shot up.

“These ones look like a lollypop,” Gunderson said as he passed out dried stalks of wildflowers topped with round bundles of seeds to the second graders. “And for birds, they are a lollypop.”

Gunderson, a former dentist, said he got involved in environmental groups after he retired. The woodlands space near the church, he said, was one of the first things he saw when he and his wife moved to Catonsville six years ago.

“To walk through it was almost a spiritual experience,” he said. “To see beer cans was disconcerting.”

The church, Gunderson said, ultimately wants the revitalized space to be open for the community and the school to enjoy — including three of the Gundersons’ grandchildren, who attend Hillcrest Elementary.

“It’s cool to think that the canopy trees we’re planting, they’ll come and sit under,” Gunderson said.

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