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Written by Eugenie Waters and Christina Keys
Wildlife gardens are a wonderful way for children, educators, and the local community to connect with nature, increase biodiversity, and beautify school grounds. They can also provide ecosystem services that can improve the functioning of school yards for caretakers and children alike. A wildlife garden may be a native plant garden, a pollinator garden, or butterfly garden. What they all have in common is a focus on attracting wildlife to school grounds for children’s learning and enjoyment.
We, Eugenie Waters and Christina Keys, have recent experiences navigating all the steps involved in establishing native plant gardens at schools. We were involved in conception, planning, funding, planting, engaging with students and teachers, as well as maintaining native plant gardens at two Ottawa elementary schools. Each has unique challenges and opportunities, but we hope our experiences in establishing school gardens will inspire and reassure you - it is possible!
First steps to garden creation - gather your team and scope out the schoolyard
Find an interested teacher, school staff member, fellow parent, or community member to take this journey together. We found each other through the Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library Facebook group. The more the merrier, but even just one to two people taking the lead can accomplish so much! Spend some time on the school yard to get a sense of some possible locations for a native plant garden. Some important considerations include:
- Light conditions: Does the potential garden have full or part sun or full or part shade?
- Soil conditions: Is the soil dry, moist, or compacted?
- Children: Is the garden in a play area? Are there spaces available on school property that are not frequently used by children?
It can be very helpful to observe how the school yard is used during recess and during school hours as well as after school. Some schools may already have garden beds that have not been maintained or are full of weeds or invasive species, waiting to be rehabilitated. Each school’s situation is unique, but every school has space for a native plant garden of some size (see photo of “Pollinator Strip” below)!
Build a relationship with the school
Once you have a few people interested and some ideas, approach decision-makers at the school, starting with some informal conversations. Perhaps there is already a teacher thinking about how to make use of some long-abandoned garden boxes at the school, or the school has applied to the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s WILD Spaces free native plant program for schools. Check if the school has a schoolyard committee. Parent or school councils are a great way to navigate the school community for this type of project, as is speaking to the principal and key caretaker. Some schools already have an environmentally focused student club or staff environmental committee. There are usually supportive people just waiting for someone to take the initiative.
In your preliminary conversations, focus on the benefits of wildlife and native plant gardens for students and how they connect with their learning. Emphasise the learning opportunities for the children at all grade levels as well as the mental-health benefits of school yard greening. However, be sure you are ready for the questions about risks of insect stings for children, maintenance plans, costs and bureaucratic liability. Our experience has been that the concerns about insect stings are easily overcome with education (most native bees are solitary and do not bite unless provoked), language choice (native plant garden or butterfly garden is less likely to put people on high-alert than pollinator garden, which makes people think of bees specifically), and open communication.
Time to find some funding (and free resources!)
Within the city of Ottawa, a great source of funding is the Community Environmental Projects Grant Program (CEPGP). The application is due at the end of March every year, and it regularly funds many native plant gardens in public spaces, including on school grounds. Be sure to read through all the requirements before considering submission, including insurance needs, landowner permissions, and required timelines. Usually the principal can write a letter granting landowner permission on behalf of the school board for any application, and the school board’s insurance can cover the grant’s requirements. Be sure to check how the funding will be received and managed, including tracking receipts and reimbursements. Public schools get a partial reimbursement for HST on purchases, so you may be able to stretch your funding a bit further if it is administered by the school.
Often you can supplement your grant with in-kind donations, and some grants require this. Usually these donations are simply volunteer hours. Consider also asking local retailers for donations, like wood, soil, plants, and garden tools. Having a letter you’ve drafted and signed by the principal outlining the project and its needs is useful in talking to a garden centre or hardware store manager to solicit donations. Ontario Native Plants’ parent company Verbinnen’s Nursery offers their plants at wholesale prices to non-profit organisations such as schools and community associations. Other sources of native plants locally include Ferguson Tree Nursery, Ritchie’s Feed and Seed’s native section (Windmill Ln location), Beaux Arbres, and A Cultivated Art seedlings.
Choosing plants, and how to make sure they survive!
Plant selection is key for ensuring your garden will thrive. This is especially important in the difficult growing environments common in school yard gardens. They often have dry, compacted soil and experience heavy salt runoff in winter. Plants can also be trampled by kids, which is a risk each spring and during the plant establishment phase. The concept of “right plant, right place” is useful in plant selection guidance; choose only plants that naturally grow in the existing conditions instead of trying to change the conditions. This means you need to do some research about each and every plant you select. Is it drought tolerant? Is it salt tolerant? Does it like full sun or part shade? How does its height compare to others around it?
The plants also need to be chosen based on their ‘sociability’ which means how they interact with other plants. Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), for example, is a bully! It will grow very tall and slowly expand through its rhizomes to take over the entire garden bed. Alternatively, early goldenrod (Solidago juncea) is a shorter, less aggressive goldenrod that plays nicely with others. Attention to sociability is especially important to minimise maintenance and ensure plant survival. Wonderful resources for learning about sociability are the books A Garden for the Rusty Patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat for Native Pollinators and Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design.
Another key aspect for plant survival is planning for paths or fencing. In the early days of establishing perennials, it is important to protect them from excessive trampling. In some cases, this may mean a DIY fence with wood posts and twine or creating a path from flat rocks or a few paving stones to direct students. In more compact school yards or those for younger children, a more robust fence of soft plastic may be needed for the first year or two, but try to keep it short to help maximise student interaction with the garden.
Using the garden as an educational resource
One of the keys for success for any school garden is planning for student and teacher involvement at each step. Regular communications and solicitation of volunteers is important. In the planning phase, be sure teachers have input about what would help maximise the garden’s role in their curriculum. Budgeting early on for lots of educational signage can be helpful if you hope that teachers will have input into the content. Activities that kids can more easily be involved with include winter sowing seeds in pots (bigger seeds like butterfly milkweed and pale purple coneflower are more suited for this), planting plants, watering, and creating cute signs. Budgeting for supplies for these class activities is an important consideration. Your budget proposal may include:
- Pots and potting soil for winter sowing by students
- A dozen watering cans
- A dozen trowels
- A laminator, heavy-duty stapler, and waterproofing spray for temporary student signage
A successful school garden improves the school yard by providing ecosystem services like improving water runoff, by beautifying, and by creating habitat for local wildlife. But the most successful school garden fosters deep connections between the students and the natural world. School gardens focused on wildlife spark curiosity about the little green bees, the red and black butterflies, and the birds eating the seed heads. In this way, school gardens can enrich the education of young people while also enriching lives in the broader community including the local wildlife.
Eugenie Waters and Christina Keys have led the establishment of native plant gardens at their children’s schools in Ottawa, École élémentaire publique Trille des Bois and Manor Park Public School, respectively. They also work together on various community native plant garden projects through their involvement with the Manor Park Community Association’s (MPCA) Environmental Sustainability Committee.
Dozens of native plants were planted by Manor Park Community Council’s Summer Day Camp kids in August 2023 on Manor Park Public School grounds. In an existing planter box, we created ten sections by stapling twine across the planter, then stapled laminated photos to the front of each section. This way, the campers knew where to plant each seeding and can observe over time how each type looks as it grows and flowers. (Photo: Christina Keys)
As part of Trille des Bois’s CEPGP grant from the City of Ottawa, parent volunteers of the School Council’s schoolyard committee and students transformed this area that suffered from excessive rainwater run-off and soil erosion (left) into a thriving rain garden (right). Over all, the project added 90 native shrubs (8 species) and over 250 native plants (over 25 species) to multiple areas of the school yard, including creating new planting areas and revitalising existing garden beds. (Photo: Eugenie Waters)
Even small planters like this one at the Manor Park Community Council at 100 Thornwood Rd can provide enormous learning benefits for students and teachers. The Canadian Wildlife Federation says, “Evidence shows that teaching outdoors can make educators happier, healthier, less likely to experience teacher burnout and can also help strengthen the bond between teachers and students. Time spent outdoors can increase students’ ability to concentrate, help with symptoms of learning challenges and may even improve overall test scores. Furthermore, children who have positive experiences outdoors with a trusted adult are more likely to develop a strong conservation ethic.” (Photo: Christina Keys)
The Manor Park Native Plant Demonstration Garden was created by the Manor Park Community Association’s Environmental Sustainability Committee. It is located on land used by both the Manor Park Community Council and Manor Park Public School. The principal was able to provide landowner permission for City of Ottawa’s CEPGP funding, and the MPCA provided insurance coverage. Temporary signage and fencing protected the young garden in early spring 2023. (Photo: Christina Keys)
By fall 2023, permanent signage had been posted, and fencing was no longer needed at the Manor Park Native Plant Demonstration Garden. (Photo: Christina Keys)
This narrow “Pollinator Strip” is only 12” wide and runs along the south-facing wall of the school building at Trille des Bois. The school is in an urban area and has a relatively small schoolyard, given the sizable student population. When adding plants and shrubs we were very mindful to not take away precious play-space from the children.
- Community Environmental Projects Grant Program (CEPGP)
- Tree Canada’s Greening Canada’s School Grounds
- TD Friends of the Environment Foundation Grant
- Eco-Schools Canada Funding Opportunities
- Desjardins Foundation Prizes
Ideal Plants for Dry, Salty Soil in Full Sun
- Canada Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
- Canada Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis)
- Hairy Beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus)
- Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
- Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
- Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum)
- Hoary Vervain (Verbena stricta)
- Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
- Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)
- Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
- Heath Aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides)
- Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis)
- Lanceleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
- Smooth Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum laevis)
- Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata)
- Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)
Check out In Our Nature for more plant lists for different conditions.
- Canadian Wildlife Federation’s WILD Spaces
- Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library website
- Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library Facebook group
- David Suzuki Butterfly Way Rangers
- CAFES Ottawa
- Your local community association
- Your school’s parent council