By Pete Barnes
Many teachers are, understandably, in survival mode this semester, hoping just to make it through the pandemic and return to “normal”. But for those with the bandwidth to think beyond the present chaos, planning a project that will get kids outside, help the natural world, and beautify the school campus may be a welcome relief. A pollinator garden does all of these things with minimal financial and technological resources, and is a great project for schools that are conducting as many classes outside as possible in order to limit potential spread of the virus. Science, math, and language arts concepts can all be taught in the garden, but students will most remember making the earth a more liveable place.
Why a pollinator garden? Pollinators like butterflies, bees, and other insects are in trouble. Habitat loss, pesticides, and invasive species have reduced insect numbers dramatically in recent years. Neighborhoods are often planted with species from other countries that don’t support our native pollinators. This affects all levels of our ecosystems and hurts agriculture, since many crops need pollinators to reproduce. Our schools are often surrounded by grass, a food desert for insects that requires chemicals and frequent maintenance. Replacing sections of grass with native flowers benefits nature and humans equally. Pollinators find habitat and food, the school saves money on lawn products and mowing, and students have a natural learning space on their school grounds. Not to mention, native flowers are more beautiful than the best kept grassy lawn and will be enjoyed by your entire community!
What is needed? Your starting point will be an open space like a grassy field or weedy patch, an unused bed, or a mulchy area. Any outdoor space with decent sun and little foot traffic will do! Size can vary from a few hundred square feet to many acres. Get administrative approval, then look for help. Outside expertise is welcome– my class worked with an agent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who prepared our site, provided seed and advice, and worked with my students. Local and regional organizations like gardening clubs, prairie restoration groups, or environmental education nonprofits can provide consulting or even equipment and labor. You will want your students to get their hands dirty, but help from parent volunteers is always welcome. Grants can provide additional resources.
What next? Site preparation is the most detailed and time consuming step. Grass must be removed and the ground tilled. Tillers can be rented or borrowed, or you can find someone to help with this step if possible. We did this step in August 2019, then sprayed the area with Roundup (glyphosate) to prevent grasses and weeds from returning. Using organic herbicides or covering the area with cardboard or plastic are earth friendly options, but may not be as effective for larger spaces. We planted a seed mix of native flowers and grasses in February 2020. This process of winter overseeding is common with native prairie plants, whose seeds slowly germinate through the cold weather, then sprout after the rains and warmer temperatures of spring. Tiny plug plants can also be planted in the spring. Plugs can be grouped and organized more easily than a seed mix and produce more immediate results. Seed mixes and plug plants can be purchased from online producers like www.prairienursery.com or from some local gardening stores.
How does it fit into my teaching? My fifth graders study ecosystems, producers and consumers, and how invasive species affect our natural world. The pollinator garden is a perfect teaching tool, especially since it is just 100 yards from my classroom. We will use the app iNaturalist to keep track of plant and animal species in the garden. We also hope to collect seeds from our garden for the Citizen Science Project Wingspan. Students learned math by measuring and mapping our site, dividing up the square footage into plots for the various flower species, and creating budgets for our grant spending. The garden will be a great place for nature writing and drawing projects or for silent reading or quiet reflection. I hope students from all grade levels will enjoy the roughly 8,000 square feet of native garden we created and will use it for reasons that we never considered.
A pollinator garden can be a major undertaking, so don’t rush it. Perhaps this pandemic school year will only allow for planning and dreaming. I hope to add a bench, birdhouses, and educational signage this year as our garden establishes itself. No matter if it is a tiny space with a few dozen plants, or a 45 acre land lab like the one created at our neighboring district in Granville, Ohio, take your time and do it right. This project may remain at the school longer than you do, and the students’ memories may last even longer.
Pete Barnes teaches fifth grade science in New Albany, Ohio. He has taught for 24 years at schools in Washington, DC, Williamsburg, Virginia, and central Ohio. Pete helps run the science fair, the greenhouse, the Elementary Science Olympiad Program, and all things STEM related at his school. When not teaching, he enjoys cycling, hiking, playing guitar, and hanging out with his wife and two children.