Plant to support Nature – We can do this! May 17 2023, 1 Comment
Almost all classrooms have the ability to grow plants outside, even if it is only in containers. Many schools have extensive grounds. Some fortunate schools are surrounded by a natural area, but frequently, the landscape is mainly ornamental plants that are native to other regions. How many of the plants around your school are from your local ecosystem? This is an important question to address.
Humans have taken over a significant part of our planet. Our buildings, lawns, roads, and fields exclude the native plant communities and all the animals that rely on them. It is heartening to know that this is a problem that we can address simply by what we choose to plant. We can give important support to insects, birds, and other life in our native ecosystem. It is good for all the life of our ecosystem – including us.
Children can learn about what we can do from the Young Reader’s Edition of the book, Nature’s Best Hope: How You Can Save the World in Your Own Yard. It was written for adult readers by Douglas W. Tallamy and adapted for younger readers by Sarah L. Thomson. Older elementary and middle school children can read this book to learn about the problem and ways to help.
I learned important ideas from this book. I knew that we need to grow plants that support pollinators with nectar and pollen. I had not fully grasped the need to plant host species for caterpillars. These plants are vital to the insects’ survival, but beyond that, they play a huge role in the support of bird populations. It is because of the food baby birds eat. They cannot feed on the seeds or adult insects that their parents consume. Instead, they need soft-boded caterpillars, and their parents have to find thousands of these insect larvae to raise a nest full of babies.
How do we find plants that support our insects and birds? The National Wildlife Federation is a good source of this information. See https://www.nwf.org/Garden-for-Wildlife/About/Native-Plants. This website features a native plant finder. You enter your zip code, and it gives you lists of plants that host the most butterfly and moth species. These plants will help provide food for the birds in your area.
What is in our gardens now? Many of the ornamental species we grow come from other parts of this continent and even from other continents. People love to have a variety of plants in their gardens. We don’t have to get rid of all our exotic species; we can add native plants. A good goal is at least half in native plants.
The lawns in the US take up an amazing area. Tallamy writes that in the state of Maryland, there are twice as many acres in lawns than in all state parks, state forests, and wildlife management areas put together. It is the same in most Eastern states.
Schools need playing fields and spaces for children to run and exercise, so it isn’t practical to get rid of the grass. All of the area around the school doesn’t have to be a lawn, however. A border or corner can be set aside for native plants. Areas that get little foot traffic can be changed to a meadow of mixed native plants, very attractive to people as well as insects. Less grass means less water for irrigation and less mowing and fertilizing. Cutting back on fertilizer is important for greater ecosystem health because fertilizer runoff promotes harmful algae blooms and lowers drinking water quality.
The University of Florida Thompson Earth Systems Institute has information about the importance of insects and what we can do to help rebuild their populations, which are declining. See https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/earth-systems/the-insect-effect/. This website has guidelines for making your outdoor spaces insect friendly. The decline in insect species and numbers doesn’t make headlines like other climate problems, but it is a critical one to address.
Beds of flowering plants offer many possibilities for botany studies, including pollinator watches, observations of bud formation, finding flower parts, and watching fruits develop. Diversity – having many different species – is important for survival of ecosystems. Children can compare the life they see in a flower bed planted with many native species versus a grass lawn. So many good learning experiences await in a richly planted landscape!