The passion I have for the natural world has been with me as long I can remember. I have been sharing this passion with my students for fifteen years. What better way to attract wildlife than through landscaping? Walk through any neighborhood and 98% of the flora you see is from another country or continent. Much of this provides little wildlife value. It only makes sense to plant the plants that our native fauna have coevolved with over many thousands of years. California is a Mecca for native vegetation, with many of the plants that grow here being endemic. Of the 1000’s of plants native to California, many have significant wildlife value and there are so many other benefits to planting natives, which I will touch on a little.
I first started planting natives around our veggie garden to attract pollinators. Our district maintenance came once a year to mow down weeds and spray chemicals. Our garden is 100% organic and I despise chemicals. I slowly put in native shrubs and perennials, building up the native flora little by little. The students always love helping with any outdoor chores. The planting was never an organized effort, just random digging and planting. It was no matter to the kids, they just dug digging, dug planting and loved getting dirty.
After years of random planting, I took a more systematic approach. I found a landscape designer who volunteered her services and drew up a plan. She was also on sight supervisor for installation since I have no landscaping background. For funding I was awarded a $5,000 grant through Keep San Jose Beautiful. As soon as the work started it opened up a whole new world for my students and me.
The process took several weeks and included three Saturday workdays as well as at least a dozen weekday sessions. I traveled far and wide to pick up well over a hundred plants. The students helped me to design a beautiful sign for the garden that included their artwork, in both English and Spanish.
Once the installation was complete all there was left to do was water and hope the plants took to their new home. Then the weeding started, an endless chore, year after year. However, kids have an insatiable willingness to pull weeds. There isn’t a day that goes by when we are out there where they don’t feel the need to share with me every slug, bug, spider, or worm.
The garden design has grown over the years and many of the plants are now mature and provide shelter for the birds as well as berries for them to eat. There are dozens of different flowers that bloom throughout the year providing nectar for countless pollinators. These bugs attract the insect eating birds. Successive plantings over the years have provided plenty of work and a change from weeding.
Since it never seems like enough, I sought out a San Jose nonprofit called Our City Forest. They provide the trees and the expertise. Many of the California butterflies lay their eggs on and the caterpillars eat the leaves of broadleaf deciduous trees. It only made sense to plant things like cottonwoods, buckeyes and sycamores. These riparian trees thrive when planted within a lawn. During the tree plantings, the students just had a blast digging huge holes. In one of the plantings we put 13 trees in the ground.
Every spring Santa Clara Native Plant Society hosts a Going Native Garden Tour. Garden owners open up their property for the day to let the public tour their native habitats to learn about the benefits of gardening with natives. I have had our school garden on the tour three times. In preparing the garden for the tour I enlist the help of dozens of kids. There are usually about five kids who want to take it a step further and learn how to be tour docents.
I teach the kids about the benefits of landscaping with California natives through discussions, reading brochures, and researching online. The kids spend a few days a week after school researching the different plants. They research what habitat the plant is found in, what are its water and soil requirements and what wildlife value does is have. We spend one day a week just observing what comes to visit the plants. We use insect nets to get a closer look at things. We conduct research on native bees and learn about the benefits of this important, but shrinking group of pollinators. Once their knowledge base has grown significantly I take the kids on a garden tour as if they were the visitors. Slowly they get better and better at presenting to each other. At tour time, the kids have spent well over a hundred hours getting ready for the tour.
Tour day comes and the five kids are nervous. For last year’s tour we had three of five docents were very shy in class, but they shined and made me proud. They get the greatest joy out of being the tour guides. The compliments that come from tour participants are astounding. I know this is an experience they will never forget.
After the tour is over we offer tours to the other classes and staff. My students then take whole classes around the garden. There isn’t a time when the teacher doesn’t tell me afterwards that she was blown away by the student’s knowledge.
I take many of these same kids camping and day hiking on the weekends. On these trips I reinforce all what they have learned and look to these kids as the plant experts while we botanize. It is great that they get to see the plants they know so much about growing in the wild. Once again this is information and experiences they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.