Terra Birds recently hosted a planting party at Killip Elementary School as part of its Green Schoolyards Initiative pilot.
More than 200 small pots with native plants were arranged along the side of the new school building. After the school day ended, Killip students and community volunteers worked together to plant them into what will one day become a teaching tool and haven for butterflies and other pollinators.
One student, Damien, was busy watering the holes the plants would go into. He also gardened at home, growing fruits and vegetables, and said his favorite part of gardening was “plants and trees and all that.”
Green Schoolyards is part of the Cities Connecting Children to Nature Initiative, a collaboration between the Children and Nature Network and the National League of Cities. Local partners include Terra Birds, the City of Flagstaff, Flagstaff Unified School District, the University of Arizona Coconino County Cooperative Extension, Native Americans for Community Action and Willow Bend Environmental Education Center.
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It recently began the second year of a three-year technical assistance grant, the first year of which included conversations with Killip Elementary's architects and designers to identify areas that can be used as learning laboratories. The “pollinator popup” is the school’s first, said Terra Birds's outreach coordinator Danya Gorel, with plans for a vegetable garden and pond riparian zone in the works, as well as for expansion to other Flagstaff schools.
The project also includes a junior master gardener program for Killip students. A group of second- through fifth-graders meets twice a week after school for a series of lessons from a Texas A&M curriculum.
The nine-week program covers topics such as wildlife, taking care of plants and pollinators, said Gayle Gratop, who works for the master gardener program through the UofA cooperative extension.
At the end, the program includes sections on career exploration and a service learning project.
“We learn about plant needs, wildlife needs and we put all that together in this learning space,” she said, giving the example of a lesson that involved taking soil samples in the garden's future location.
“The kids chose this site with a little help, but we looked for specific things plants need, like full sun, well-draining soil — big-picture stuff. They were like little scientists; we had clipboards and evaluation papers.”
Kindergartner Maggie said she was having fun as she took a plant out of its pot to put into the ground. She added that her brother gardened, but that his plants were indoors -- in small containers.
Fifth-grader Kailey said she had come to the event because she likes "gardening a lot.” She said she helped her grandma with her garden at home, where they grew watermelon, pumpkins, cucumbers, chilies and more.
One thing Kailey said she learned from the program is “don’t add too much water or else it's going to kill the plants.”
The plants being put into the ground were all native, sourced from local seeds able to withstand high elevation and other conditions specific to Flagstaff. Laminated fact sheets were placed below a sample of each -- including blue flax, hillside verbena, western sedge and winged buckwheat -- to help the students understand what they would be planting and the role they play in the ecosystem.
Maria Galvez, a master gardener who also volunteers with nonprofit Arizona Milkweeds for Monarchs, said the garden will also function as a monarch way station, with milkweed planted in groups to help the insects thrive.
“Monarchs require milkweed to deposit their eggs, because that's the only thing that monarch caterpillars will eat,” she said. “They require it to be in big blocks, so you'll see them all laid out in big sections. ...Whatever they emerge on is what they'll eat, so that's why we have to do these big patches. This is a way station because you’re required to have so many milkweed plants or so many pollinator plants when the adults come to lay eggs or when they emerge from their chrysalis."
Gratop said the space would continue to be used as a learning tool, with the addition of birdbaths and old logs to attract wildlife and butterflies.
“I just hope it helps with their overall emotional and physical well-being,” she said of the junior master gardener program. “I’m hoping that the tactile experience will help them appreciate plants and our native flora and fauna, and then we can be building the next generation of scientists, botanists, wildlife biologists."