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Have you seen the fields of sunflowers in Old North and Delmar? This is the movement behind them

If you took a drive this fall in Old North, along Delmar near Union, or in Dutchtown near Virginia and Liberty streets, you’ve probably seen vast fields of sunflowers waving at you as you pass by. Who is behind these projects to brighten up vacant lots across St. Louis?

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Richard Reilly

On Thursday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” Richard Reilly, one of the founders of the Sunflower + Project, joined host Don Marsh to discuss the initiative. Reilly is also the Energy Programs Manager for the Earth Ways Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden

The Sunflower + Project was started in 2013 by Reilly and Don Koster, an architect and senior lecturer at Washington University, after winning the Sustainable Land Lab competition in 2012 in the partnership between Washington University and the city of St. Louis which sought to find new ways to use vacant lots in St. Louis. 

"It has become a place-making project, a socially-engaged art project, it is an outdoor classroom."

The first project was in Old North.

"It does a lot of things," Reilly said of the project. "Beautification is definitely part of it. ... It has become a place-making project, a socially-engaged art project, it is an outdoor classroom. We have kids from five to 75 who've been by for classes and talking about pollinators and goldfinches and their love of sunflower seeds during the process. It has been a spectacular kind of multidisciplinary, multi-effect project."

Neighborhood volunteers seed, till and harvest the flowers and some children in Old North even watch out for the flowers when they're blooming to make sure no one cuts them down, Reilly said. 

Since its first plot of sunflowers in Old North in 2013, the project has expanded to two other sites in the city of St. Louis. Those projects, in Dutchtown and off of Delmar, were spearheaded by community leaders in those areas  (Amanda Colón-Smith, of Dutchtown South Community Corporation, and Lyda Krewson, Ward 28 Alderwoman) with consulting help from Reilly and Koster.

Through the process, Reilly said that they've found that sunflowers are not actually soil detoxifiers, as originally predicted, but instead are more useful for their community building and beautification components. Not to be discounted, however, is research done by some of Reilly's interns which found that sunflowers planted on vacant lots actually have a lower carbon footprint compared to typical maintanence of lots not covered in the flowers. 

Here's how the project came about, the sustainability lessons the sunflower teams have learned and what's next for the project to brighten up vacant lots around the city:

Credit Richard Reilly
The sustainability flags that hang over the fields of sunflowers when they die in the winter.

While the flowers themselves have withered with the winter chill, the project will continue to live on over the coming months in Old North with the raising of “Sustainability Flags.” The flags, designed by schoolchildren from Mason Elementary in Clifton Heights and Ames VPA Elementary in Old North, will go up on Saturday, Dec. 12 at 10 a.m. to bring some color to the area even without the sunflowers. The community is invited to join in the process.

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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