Children’s garden blooming

Jake Kapsner

Little hands tend tiny plots each summer in a north Minneapolis garden that just keeps on growing.
The J.D. Rivers Outdoor Discovery Center has stewed up gardening enthusiasm during its 16-summer existence.
Now, with interest burgeoning in Hennepin County’s oldest and largest children’s garden, coordinator Anna Sonmore-Costello hopes to garner enough support for a bigger, more accessible center.
“Think of it as a children’s equivalent of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden,” said Jeffrey Lee, project manager.
Community members, artists and private companies have pitched in with the center’s co-sponsors, University Extension Service and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, to sow seeds for a new, state-of-the-art facility.
“It’s really been a grass roots effort, that’s the beauty of it,” Sonmore-Costello said.
The proposed “Minneapolis Children’s Garden” would be a part of the current outdoor discovery center, which offers summer programs for children, as well as therapeutic and other community-based gardening activities.
The center, which will be free to the public, would continue to promote cultural diversity and handicap accessibility in its community garden.
“This is unique, there isn’t anything like this in existence right now,” Costello said of the upgraded plan.
Specialty site additions such as a Learning Center and a Water and Weather Garden would bring new scientific enhancements like a lightning rod and sun dial.
But the hands-on excitement of exploring such proposed additions as an “Enchanted Forest” or “Butterfly Garden” exist already in spirit if not in name.
Children spend summer days digging in garden plots, where they learn about plant and human health as well as how to tell garden stories.
Last week a group of children plucked green beans, lettuce and broccoli from the garden as part of hands-on nutritional learning.
Thirty-five kids heard storyteller Nothando Zulu tell of “Baba Rabbit” — an animated tale of patience yielding greater wealth.
“The art does something that the science doesn’t: It opens the magic of the garden to children,” Sonmore-Costello said.
Storyteller Larry Johnson helped children craft their own garden stories. Kids like Mosun Ogunlana and Elixus Couvetrier, both 10, kept an audience of peers transfixed while a local producer taped them for a cable-access program called “All About Kids.”
Cedric Ware, an 11-year-old from Brooklyn Park, liked garden toil the best.
“You can pick stuff and bring it home and eat it. And it just looks good,” he said.
The one-acre Eden on the northern edge of Theodore Wirth Park was the brain-child of local residents, J.D. and Ada Rivers, whose idea for a children’s garden took root in 1981 and sprouted a year later.
But other hands have helped keep the garden growing.
Costello volunteered with the University’s Master Gardener program soon after the Rivers-inspired project began. She left to work for the Minnesota Children’s Museum in St. Paul, but returned years later to help revive a garden struggling for lack of leadership.
The blossoming outdoor discovery center has helped 3,000 people escape from the hot concrete of Minneapolis summer to small patches of garden green this year. A jump from 1996, when the center’s environmental and horticultural themes drew 270 participants.
Now organizers need to raise $395,000 to break ground on the Minneapolis Children’s Garden. The goal is to finish construction by the year 2000.
“There will be opportunities for a lot of economically diverse kids to have access to this, because it’ll be in their backyard,” Costello said.