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Scout earns grant to spread native plants



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Life Scout Keegan Konkle (left), a freshman at OHS, and Ruth Vrbensky, owner of Oakland Wildflower Farm in Brandon Twp. Photo provided. (click for larger version)
April 25, 2012 - Life Scout Keegan Konkle has gone from earning merit badges to receiving grants.

The Oxford High School freshman was recently awarded a $200 grant from the Wildflower Association of Michigan (WAM) to purchase native plants for his Eagle Scout project.

"It really helped me out because at the time, I was having trouble raising funds," said Konkle, who noted his entire project will cost about $1,900.

Entitled "Symbol of America," Konkle is planning to erect a flagpole surrounded by a colorful garden full of native plants at the Independence Oaks County Park youth group campsite known as Camp Wilderness. The park is located in Independence Twp.

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"I went camping there once with my scout troop and we usually raise a flag every morning, but there was no flagpole at this site," explained Konkle, who's a member of Oxford Boy Scout Troop 366 and a resident of Brandon Township. "When it came time for me to think of an Eagle project, I immediately thought of this."

"To be able to support a project like this seemed like a very good investment for the future," said WAM Grants Coordinator Maryann Whitman, of Oakland Township. "(Konkle) has excellent backing and excellent understanding (of what his project entails), so it made perfect sense to fund him."

WAM awards grants annually to fund projects involving the creation of an outdoor classroom, the enhancing of an existing site or other educationally-directed projects that support the organization's mission. WAM is committed to being a resource for residents who wish to learn more about native plants and their associated habitats.

"The mission and cause of our organization is to preserve the diversity of native plants in our landscape and to promote the use of native plants in our landscape," Whitman said.

Konkle's garden will consist of 10 different species of native plants. He will be planting Columbine, Bicknell's sedge, Butterfly weed, Purple coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, Little bluestem, Switch grass, Sky blue aster, Stiff goldenrod and Old field goldenrod.

Ruth Vrbensky, a member of WAM and owner of Oakland Wildflower Farm (520 Hurd Rd.) in Brandon Township, helped Konkle design his garden and select just the right native plants for it. He will be purchasing all the plants from her nursery.

"She helped me pick out what would look best – transitioning from flowers into grass, kind of framing the flagpole," Konkle said.

Vrbensky indicated the plants were selected based on which species would thrive in the soil at this location, which ones would best accent the flagpole and which species were already growing inside the lush 1,276-acre county park.

"We wanted to use them as a showcase piece to say, 'Hey, these plants are here, too, folks. Don't just look at the trees," she said.

Konkle and Vrbensky chose native plants that will constantly generate interest and have visual appeal, no matter what the season.

Whether it's spring, summer or fall, visitors will see some type of flower in bloom.

"There's always going to be something growing there, something coming in and (going) out," Vrbensky said.

Although nothing blooms in the winter, the garden will still have defining characteristics in the form of Switch grass and Little bluestem.

"(Switch grass is) not a grass that's going to go away with winter snows," Vrbensky said. "It will stand up to the snow and create a visual as well as textural piece to frame the pole."

The stem of Little bluestem has a bluish-purple color.

"It's really kind of striking when you see it," Vrbensky said. "It will turn to a beautiful amber-golden-rust color in the fall when the frost hits it and it will almost hold that golden color all winter long. It will stand up and wave in those winter winds. It's really quite a striking little plant for those winter-type gardens."

Overall, Vrbensky had nothing but praise for Konkle's project, which she views as "a tribute to our nation," from the flagpole on which Old Glory will be hoisted to the hearty native plants poking through the soil.

"These are all American-made things. These are American plants. These are Michigan plants," she said. "I think it's a very, very well-thought-out project."

Vrbensky gives Konkle "a lot of credit" for "thinking ahead" about what people are going to "see at ground level" as well as when they're looking up.

"I think it's a great project and my hat's off to Keegan for making this happen," she said. "It's a great campground, but it needs something to spice that area up. I think (Konkle's project is) really going to highlight that wilderness camp area for the scouts and all the other groups of campers that will use that space."

Konkle, who's been involving in scouting since second grade, is expecting to plant his garden on May 12 and conduct a dedication ceremony the very next day.

Whitman was very impressed by Konkle's planning skills and that's a big reason why he was awarded a WAM grant.

"I was very pleased that a young person had the interest and the wherewithal to prepare the grant request," she said. "It took a great deal of effort and thought on his part. He thought out all the details. He knows exactly what he's going to plant and how he's going to water them until they establish themselves."

Konkle plans to visit the park and water his garden at least once or twice a week (depending on rainfall) throughout the spring and summer seasons.

So why are native plants so important?

According to Whitman, having them around helps promote and sustain a healthy population of native pollinators – such as bees, butterflies and other insects – which pollinate everything from farmers' crops to backyard vegetable gardens.

"There are a lot of insects out there that are very beneficial," she said.

Native plants and native pollinators have been feeding each other in Michigan since the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, according to Whitman.

"By promoting the use of native plants in our landscape, we're promoting biodiversity, which is just a big word that refers to all the plants and animals that we share our life space with," she said. "We need them. Technology can only take care of so much."

To learn more about WAM, please visit www.wildflowersmich.org.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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