Volunteer planters cultivate respect for nature

Friends of Rock Creek Park sow grasses along the shore to restore its natural splendor


Not only was it a dark and stormy night -- it was muggy, too. But that didn't stop the recently formed Friends of Back Creek Park from going to work.

Members of the nonprofit organization met for several hours Wednesday night during intermittent thunderstorms to plant native grasses in the small Back Creek Park in Annapolis. "We had nine hearty souls dancing around the lightning bolts," said Mel Wilkins, a group member.

The grasses, planted along the shoreline that the group had recently rehabilitated, will serve several purposes: They will be food for ducks and a place for fish to lay eggs, and they will prevent erosion, Wilkins said.

The project was just one small step in the continuing work of transforming the city-owned park, across Back Creek from Eastport, into an educational showcase. The goal is to create an urban park that will also serve as an environmental education center for students and others in the area. It will also be a place to stroll, picnic and simply enjoy the scenery.

"We want to provide a national model, an urban eco-education, a living classroom," said Peter Gray, chairman of the group.

But it still has a long way to go. The park, site of a former wastewater treatment plant that dates back to 1934 and was used until 1971, has about 15 developed acres and eight that are undeveloped. Created a park in 1990 under a plan called Project Open Space, it is now little more than some woodlands, the creek and a few nature trails. And until recently, it was a mess, Gray said.

"Unfortunately, it was pretty rough," he said. "You wouldn't want to go to the park." The creek was dirty, the shoreline had eroded, and the park was a magnet for crime, he said.

For about the past 15 months, local residents have been working on an ambitious restoration project. More recently, the volunteers formed the nonprofit Friends of Back Creek Nature Park. Gray is chairman, and other members are Jim Manuel, Kippy Burns and Carrie Capuco.

Last summer, more than 490 feet of shoreline were restored. Hundreds of trees and shrubs and thousands of native plants have already been added.

The brick wastewater treatment building is being converted to the Osprey Nature Center, a two-story facility that will have exhibits, labs and classrooms. Everything from the rainwater-retention systems to the "green roof" that has been installed on the nature center will be educational and functional.

"It's so simple, the things you can do," Gray said. "Instead of using plants that are not native, there are beautiful plants that are native."

The renovations, said Wilkins, are "going to go on for years." Partners have already included Port Annapolis Marina, which helped build a bio-retention rain garden and step-pool system; Goldleaf Group, which helped prevent cliff erosion; and Magco Inc., which installed the green roof.

The next big project will be the Eco-Technology Walk, which will be about 100 yards long, taking visitors past the shoreline, a garden and water-retention ponds, with signage explaining what they are seeing. A county courthouse cupola on the site will also be restored.

On Wednesday, the group planted about 500 plugs of native grasses, including spartina, arum arrow, three-square and duck potato, Wilkins said. The grasses were purchased from the Providence Center, which provides support for adults with developmental disabilities and has a greenhouse in Arnold, Wilkins said.

The grasses are easy to plant, he said, especially when it's been raining. "You just kind of drive a spade in the sand, particularly if it's really wet, and you stick your plug in and cover it over," Wilkins said.

Though the group was undaunted by the weather, they occasionally repaired to the nature center, which currently has only one room, to share a potluck meal. When the lightning eased up, they were back to planting.

"The plants don't mind it, so why should we?" Gray said of the rain.

But Wilkins had a slightly different perspective: "When they're throwing thunderbolts at you and you're standing in the water, with trees all around you, you have to think about it," he said. "We're either totally dedicated or totally dumb."

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