Schoolyard Gardens/Landscaping for Habitat

Resources

A great source of information about helping with schoolyard gardens can be found on Fairfax County’s Get2Green website.

Tuckahoe Elementary's Discovery Schoolyard program is a great example of how to integrate school gardens into the curriculum.

 

Permissions

School systems have procedures for volunteering (background checks) and for adding new plantings (permission from facilities as well as from academic administrators, and forms).

 

Participation

Adults: Garden projects obviously need to involve the enthusiastic and ongoing participation of school staff (administrators, teachers, and facilities managers), There should be a plan to incorporate the garden into the curriculum. There is no point in starting unless these pieces have been lined up, because otherwise any garden will be abandoned and mowed over. The PTA could also be a source of support. Ask for a few minute on the agenda either to present yourself or to have a guest speaker who can summarize the value of creating habitat.

Kids: Students should be engaged at all stages, beginning with the planning. Once the garden is part of the culture, each grade level can have its own specific project. That way the kids look forward to what they will get to do in future years. For example, one class could be in charge of a wildlife survey, another of composting and soil science, another of planting a class tree.

Easier projects

Short of a full gardening commitment, schools can still use their property to provide habitat by planting trees and shrubs, as long as arrangements are made for watering until they get established.

 

Telling a story

A great way to get things going is to identify a problem that needs to be solved, such as an eroded slope, an area with poor drainage, or an ugly ditch. Have the kids assess the site and learn about the problem of stormwater runoff ruining the nearest stream.

 

Money

  • If you have limited funds, spend it on the plants, not on hardscaping.

  • Ask for a PTA grant.

  • Apply for outside grants here or here (with permission…)

  • Collect seeds from your garden and grow them in pots to sell as an educational fundraiser.

  • Home Depot may have grants for tools.

  • Earth Sangha has 2-for-1 plant grants for public areas such as schools.

  • You should be able to get mulch for free, either from the school or your jurisdiction.

The best places to start eliminating lawn are where it is difficult or dangerous to mow, or where grass does not thrive.

Project examples

  1. Sponge garden around a storm drain.

    • Have the kids pretend to be raindrops rolling down hill. Where do they end up?

    • Dig out the dirt 10-12 inches deep in a circle around the drain and replace it with a leaf mulch/soil mixture. (Use a tarp on the ground for mixing.)

    • Surround the drain with a Filtrex biosock filled with leaf mulch to screen out soil being washed down

    • Plant around it (and on top by cutting small holes of the sock)

    • Install a visible barrier.

  2. Sponge garden around a downspout.

  3. Small pollinator garden.

    • These really need a lot of protecting from the lawn mowers!

 

  • It obviously makes sense to plant things that bloom when school is in session. You can search for plants by bloom time using our plant search app.
  • In very public areas such as walkways leading up to the school, there is lot to be said for using relatively formal-looking native plants (such as Itea virginica, Cercis canadensis, Baptisia australis) and consigning the more “natural” look to other parts of the property.

  • For using the garden in your curriculum, consider planting a limited number of species (five or six) and keeping each in a separate group. This makes it easier for students to identify and study each plant, and to figure out what is a weed and what is not. For example, the bioretention sites at Fairfax County schools are being planted with these species:​

    • Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

    • Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) 

    • Soft Rush (Juncus effusus)

    • Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor)

    • Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida)

    • Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)

  • Earth Sangha has plant packages for schools and can consult with you on your plant choices. 

  • An Audubon-at-Home ambassador can walk the property with you and make suggestions.

  • You can use existing native plants as an anchor. One school has a “Grandmother Tree.” (Grandfather Tree, sadly, is now a stump and a source of poetry inspiration.)

Weeds

  • Ideally (and eventually), the plants themselves will provide some natural weed suppression. Plant densely, with shorter plants as underplantings under taller ones. The dense roots of native grasses help prevent seed germination.

  • You do need to plan for at least two weeding days per year and for someone to clean up before school starts.

  • For many weeds, cutting them at the ground works better than pulling them up by the roots (which stirs up more weed seeds), as long as there are taller plants that can shade them out.

 

Composting

Every school should have a compost heap. Choose some out-of-the way corner.
 

Protect your garden

  • Add some human touches to identify it as an intentional garden, such as stepping stones made by the kids.

  • Create a wide perimeter/buffer. A mulched area might do.

  • Short fences and raised beds might discourage over-zealous mowers.

  • Put up educational signs.

  • Do not underestimate the zealotry of the mowers!

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