Susanne Westerfield is an eternal optimist and a trailblazer. A lifelong gardener, she saw the opportunity for a children’s garden adjacent to her church, near the riverwalk in West Branch, Michigan. She applied for grants and persuaded the church to donate the land, and the Riverwalk Children’s Garden was born. “I love gardening, and I love kids, and this seems like a perfect way to combine the two,” she says.
Westerfield marshaled community resources—including volunteers from the local 4-H chapter and the schools—to install the infrastructure and hardscape. She also recruited young men completing community service through the court system. “They moved rocks and told me this was the most fun they’d ever had doing community service,” she laughs.
The property owner next door allowed her to tap into his artesian well, giving crucial access to free water. Together with other community helpers, she installed water faucets and electricity, a crushed rock path, a rainwater basin and a recycling waterfall, which a local merchant designed and installed for cost. “There was a lot of structural work to be done before we could garden,” she says. “It was great for the kids, though, because they could see that things don’t always go the way they are planned.”
Westerfield and the kids plotted, planted, weeded, watered and watched the garden grow. There was also time for other activities, including a weed-pulling contest and a photo presentation of the garden that won a blue ribbon at the county fair. “One day, we got a variety of seeds and looked at them under a microscope to see how different each really is,” she says.
The kids planted a Farmer McGregor’s vegetable garden, complete with a handpainted Peter Rabbit statue. They also cultivated a tribute to the town’s “smiley face” water tower using yellow marigolds and purple salvia. A local favorite is the Wizard of Oz garden, featuring a tin man, scarecrow and yellow-brick road surrounded by red poppies. Tall sunflowers grow around the perimeter, their broad faces turning to the sun.
Westerfield envisions great things for the Riverwalk Children’s Garden, which is grown without pesticides. “I would like to try a Saturday farmers market, along with weekend programs for kids to come into the garden and work,” she says. She has particularly enjoyed watching children become aware of their environment, learn the value of volunteerism and discover the world of gardening—including its complex ecosystems of plants, soil and insects. During growing season, Westerfield is at the garden every day. “My hope is that it inspires others to garden too,” she says.