Mica Marriott
[email protected]

Those aren’t weeds growing at Junction Park. The park features native prairie grass.

“When Europeans first came to North America in the late 1600s and early 1700s, it is believed tall-grass prairie stretched across nearly 140 million acres or about 40 percent of what is now the United States. Today, because of human development, the loss of huge herds of grazing Buffalo, and the suppression of fires, the once unplowed or virgin prairie areas are now few and far between,” John Atkinson, a vegetation preservationist, said.

Atkinson has been involved with the development of Gardner Junction Park since 2004. He presided over planting and preserving vegetation in the park that was once native to this area. The planting and preparing of proper seed mixtures for Gardner Junction Park began in spring of 2008 and February of 2009, with the guidance of Fred Markham who is a former Chief Engineer for the Kansas Department of Transportation. Markham is an expert in native grasses in the tall grass region of the Great Plains. Markham was significantly involved with the Prairie Passage Project promoting the Tall Grass Prairie that stretches from Minnesota to Texas. Also involved with the proper plantings is a volunteer consultant from Baker University, Roger Boyd.

“Despite the misperception that prairies are grassy wastelands, Fred Markham has noted that healthy prairie ecosystems frequently house 200 species or more per acre, making them one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems,” Atkinson said.

With the passage of summer, Atkinson said it appears the prairie vegetation has proved successful.

“The array of flowers that showed their colors throughout the summer was truly remarkable. There was clear evidence that certain native grasses seeded in 2009 had taken hold. The seed heads of Indian Grass are now showing throughout the area and Switch Grass is also present in noticeable abundance. Little Bluestem has yet to be identified, though Side Oats Grama and Virginia Rye were among the first to be noted earlier in the summer. There is much to be encouraged about,” he said.

Gardner Junction is approximately a one-acre roadside park, located on the northwest corner of U.S. Highway 56 and West 183rd Street. The park is owned by the city of Gardner and was dedicated in the summer of 2008. The park is located near the location where the trails divided. Westward settlers of the 1700s and 1800s split off onto the wagon roads to Santa Fe, California, or Oregon, depending on their intended destination upon departure from this location.

The area should not be mowed at all until early fall, based on recommendations to the city from Atkinson, Markham, and Boyd.

“I’m glad the city was able to follow our recommendation, though citizens may not have understood what was taking place at the site and why the park wasn’t being mowed as regularly as some might have liked,” Atkinson explained.

Boyd called the site a “teen-aged prairie.”

It is better to wait until later in the fall to mow to give the seed heads of the desirable grasses time to mature and thereby maximize the number of viable seeds which will fall to the ground.

Gardner Junction Park is the first of several similar sites designed to help the traveling public learn about and enjoy the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. A second site and park is nearing completion at Old Franklin, Mo., and a third park is in the final planning stages for the well-known trail ruts west of Dodge City, Kan.

To find out more about Gardner Junction Park, please contact John Atkinson (816) 233-3924 or [email protected]