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There are many different kinds of habitat that can be easily and inexpensively created on school grounds.
The results of the surveys will show what types of plant and animal habitat your school community would like to see on the grounds and where it can be located.
The following list of habitats will give you an idea of the diversity of choices available and some suggestions for creating them:
Children often ask for the grass to be left unmown in places. They like playing in it and watching insects and spiders. They also enjoy the sounds of crickets and grasshoppers. But adults are often concerned that long grass will obstruct visibility and look "untidy".
Small islands of unmown grass will not reduce supervision standards because children playing in long grass tend to flatten it. It is important to make unmown areas of grass look deliberate. Children have suggested creating fish- or bird-shaped islands of unmown areas to make them look intentional. A winding wood chip pathway through a larger unmown space will help to make it look planned.
Leaving a permanent unmown area will allow students to study and record the process of natural succession over time. Woody plants can establish themselves once the soil conditions have been improved by a few generations of grasses and wildflowers. To speed up the process, woody plants can also be introduced.
You can create a "green traveller" garden by simply preparing a place with bare soil to receive the seeds that are dispersed in various ways from local plant communities. The plants that spring up may have come from seeds that were already in the soil or they may have come from seeds that were blown in, brushed off clothing, animal fur and feathers, or from bird and animal droppings. Some seeds will germinate only after they have passed through an animal's intestinal tract. Other seeds may have been "planted" by squirrels or scattered from a nearby bird feeder.
Students can identify the plants in the green traveller garden and determine how the seeds may have arrived.
It is easier to attract toads than frogs to school grounds habitat and toads are very beneficial to the garden.
Amphibians are completely carnivorous and will not eat the leaves and fruits of your plants. One toad will eat thousands of creatures a year including slugs, beetles, cutworms, flies, grasshoppers, gypsy moths, sow bugs, pill bugs, centipedes, millipedes, mole crickets, ants and earwigs. A single toad might eat up to 1,500 earwigs in a Summer! In addition to the above insects, larger female toads also tackle Japanese beetles and June bugs. Although a toad will eat the occasional beneficial insect, over 81% of its diet consists of pest insects (Organic Gardening, May/June 1994).
Toads require some moisture for breeding such as a temporary wetland and a place below the frost line for hibernating. Rocky retreats for toads can be made by placing stones to form a rocky burrow about 10 centimetres high with a sandy floor where toads can dig. Use small sections of brick drain pipe covered with rock or pieces of concrete blocks broken to allow access to the toad chamber. Plant ferns to shade the area or, if it is too dry, a garden sprinkler can be used to increase moisture levels.
Some nurseries now sell clay toad shelters, but you can make one yourself out of a large clay flower pot. Just drill a series of holes around the edge of where you want your toad-sized opening to be and chip out the drilled section with a hammer. Place one or two of these upturned flower pots in shady locations in your garden. A few rock piles and logs will also provide shelter and refuges for toads.
There are many gardening books with information on how to build rockeries (go to Resources). Building a rockery is an ideal garden project for school grounds because flowering rock plants thrive in full sun and are tolerant of dry conditions. You may be able to salvage some rocks found in the school yard when digging tree planting holes. Also, watch out for rocks unearthed during local municipal road works and the excavation of foundations on construction sites. Local quarries may allow schools to access material for school projects.
The general rule of thumb when designing a rockery is for the dimensions to be about ten feet wide for every one foot of height. The rocks are usually placed in a step-like structure to resemble as far as possible a natural rocky outcropping and to create pockets of soil between the steps. The rocks should have about one half of their height well set into the ground and be angled slightly towards the centre of the rockery. This helps to prevent frost upheaval and creates a stable retaining wall for the soil.
There are many ways to incorporate a rock garden into your overall landscape plan. You can build one on a natural slope, such as a steep bank that is difficult to mow or use rocks to form a slope to add interest to a flat yard. Building a rock garden next to a pond will allow you to grow moisture-loving plants alondside those that require dry conditions. Also, ideal toad habitat can be created by incorporating a rock garden into your pond design.
Small piles of rocks can be located within larger rockeries to create habitat for a variety of small beneficial creatures such as worms, insects and toads. Small rocks placed behind the cracks between the larger rocks also help to prevent the soil from washing out before the plants' root systems have grown sufficiently to bind the soil.
For schools with limited space, a dry wall is an interesting substitute for a rock garden. A dry wall is a stone 'fence' or wall built with stones or rocks and without the use of mortar. As each course of the dry wall is laid, a little soil is added to the natural depressions in the stones and wedged in between the stones. Small rock plants are planted in the soil as the wall is being built. Sun-loving plants are planted on the south- or west-facing side of the wall while small ferns and other shade-loving species can be planted on the north- or east-facing side of the wall.
Plants for Rock Gardens
There are usually some areas of lawn around the front and sides of school buildings that are little used. Replacing grass with perennial ground covers is ecologically and economically beneficial. Ground covers provide habitat and shade the soil which reduces the need for irrigation. They also eliminate or reduce many of the costs associated with grass maintenance such as mowing, raking, aerating, re-seeding, applying pesticides and herbicides, fertilizing and watering as well as the tipping fees for land-filling grass clippings. Eliminating pesticides and herbicides from grounds maintenance is beneficial because they are known to harm the organisms that help keep soil healthy.
A garden of various native ground
covers could be planted to show the attractive, low-maintenance
alternatives to grass. Many ground covers will stay green while the
surrounding lawn turns brown in hot, dry weather.
Some useful ground covers are:
Flora for fauna gardens
Children commonly ask for more natural surroundings and more "nice" animals, instead of the scavenging species such as seagulls, starlings, sparrows and wasps that are often attracted to the school yard by waste food and sugary residues in pop cans, juice boxes and candy wrappings. Children acknowledge the relationship between their waste and the scavengers, and habitat and "nice" animals, but they do not generally understand how the typical grass and asphalt schoolyard can be transformed into spaces that attract the "nice" creatures that they would like to see there.
Many eco-niches can be created without cost for outdoor classroom projects. For example, leaving just a small patch of grass unmown to naturally increase plant diversity will attract a host of insects, birds and small mammals and a small pile of rotting logs will provide habitat for worms, insects, mosses and lichens.
Examples of different kinds of rock for children to learn about can be incorporated into gardens and quiet social spaces. You can also create a special geology garden with examples of rocks and fossils.
A garden of native grasses can be grown which can include grains such as wheat, oats and barley. Stems of long grasses can be dyed by extracting the dyes from other plants grown specially for the purpose and woven by children. Grains can be harvested and cooked or ground into flour by the children and grasses can be used for many art and crafts projects.
Growing your own craft materials saves money and demonstrates to children that there are alternatives to buying from stores.
Teachers often use different kinds of beans bought from the store for art and crafts and math projects. Children can have fun growing and harvesting their own beans instead. As a craft project, children can easily build small teepees with poles and grow beans up the poles. The bean-covered teepee makes an attractive, shaded play house.
Root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes are often used in the classroom for carving out designs and stamping out repeat patterns on paper. Having children grow their own vegetables adds interest to this kind of activity.
Plants can be grown for extracting dyes which children can use to colour paper or fabric and paint with. Long grasses and reeds can be harvested, dyed and woven.
Parts of plants such as leaves, seeds and flowers can be added to pulp in class paper-making activities. Children can experiment with making paper from different plants such as dried tulip stems which are said to make very fine paper.
Mobiles can be created with natural objects such as feathers, cones, seed pods, dried flowers, leaves, grasses and twigs found during nature-gathering activities in the schoolyard and in the neighbourhood around the school.
A variety of materials can be used to create mini-beast gardens. For example, corrugated iron, plywood, pieces of carpet, loose bricks and stones, plastic, etc. can be placed on other surfaces such as grass, rock, bare soil and concrete. The conditions created by each combination of materials will attract different creatures. Children can study the different conditions and why certain creatures are attracted to them.
Bug rug gardens are a slightly different version of the mini-beast gardens. Place pieces of carpet approximately three feet square on grass. The carpet pieces need to be either weighted down at the corners or secured with large plastic screws. Children can study the creatures that come to live under the rugs.
A pathway can be a project in itself. A variety of natural materials can be used and such as woodchips, gravel, flat stones, stone dust, interlocking bricks, cobbles and wood. The spaces between stones and bricks can be planted with thyme and other low-growing plants to produce a more natural effect.
Gardening with art
Gardens can be enhanced with sculptures, mobiles, totem poles, sundials, mosaics, murals, colourful signage and maps, and sculpted seating and bird feeders. One school made a "fairy ring" of white-spotted red toadstools for children to sit on.
During surveys, children frequently request bird feeders and baths. Children are often surprisingly knowledgeable about the needs of birds. For example, they say that bird feeders alone are not enough because birds need water as well as food, somewhere to perch safely when alarmed, trees or boxes to nest in, and places to forage for their own food and nesting materials.
When locating bird feeders within a garden project, leave patches of bare soil where birds can take dust baths. Make sure that your dust bath is in an open area away from vegetation where cats and other predators can hide. A wide, shallow bird bath can also be installed to provide birds with drinking and bathing water.
When placing bird feeders within a garden project, remember that the scattered seeds from the feeders will sprout and that you will have to weed them out. Weeding out grasses and sunflowers from among some kinds of plants such as wildflowers is more difficult than from among, for example, woody shrubs so make sure that you avoid creating weeding-intensive plantings around feeders.
It is a good idea to plant one or more evergreen conifers in the vicinity of the feeders to provide shelter for birds in Winter.
Bats are the primary predators of night flying insects. Bats are the most abundant species of mammal in Canada and they are losing their habitat. Bats are "among the most gentle, beneficial and necessary animals on Earth. But because of the centuries of myth and superstition, they are also among the world's least appreciated and most endangered animals" (Bat Conservation International).
Children often complain about the mosquitoes in the schoolyard. A bat consumes about 600 insects an hour on a Summer night.
The Metro Toronto Zoo has a Bat Box programme which is geared to help people understand that bats are an important component of our ecosystem. They are also economically beneficial. Bats feast on the corn ear moth which is the number 1 crop pest in the United States and bats are also the number 1 pollinator in the tropical rainforest.
For more information on bats, contact the Metro Toronto Zoo's Bat Box programme, local conservation and nature groups, stewardship councils, the Community Wildlife Involvement Programme (CWIP), and Bat Conservation International. Also, check the internet for bat links to educational programmes for schools with lesson plans and details on how to build and install bat boxes.