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Creating habitat

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:

Letting the grass grow

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.

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Letting the grass grow in places will provide habitat for a large number of creatures. Some areas of unmown grass can be left for habitat for children and others can be reserved for outdoor classroom activities. Children can observe and study the diversity of wildflowers and grasses that spring up and the small mammals, insects and birds that they attract. Long-grass habitat should be cut once a year in the Autumn after the flowers have produced their seeds.

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.

Green travellers

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.

Toad garden

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.

Rock gardens

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.

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When planning the rockery, students can visit rock formations locally to study how natural forces have shaped and weathered the rock. To make your rockery look as natural as possible, it is important to observe how cracks form and how large blocks of rock are split into smaller pieces. The vertical cracks between layers of rocks are usually above one another rather than staggered like bricks or stones used in building. A good way to visualize your plan is to build a scale model with small stones and sand on a large tray. Stone native to your area will look the most natural and be the easiest and cheapest to obtain.
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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

Dwarf shrubs and low-growing forms of evergreens



Barberries, creeping

Berberis spp.


Buxus spp.


Cotoneaster spp.


Euonymus spp.

False Cypresses

Chamaecyparis spp.


Juniperus spp.


Tsuga spp.


Pinus spp.


Picea spp.

Tamarack, Larch

Larix spp.

Perennials with evergreen foliage to add Winter interest


Sedum spp.


Sempervivum spp.


Iberis sempervivum spp.

Some spring and summer-blooming perennials




Ajuga reptans


Aurinia saxatilis

Bellflowers, Dwarf

Campanula spp.


Nepeta spp.


Aquilegia spp.

Coral Bells

Heuchera sanguinea

Creeping Jenny

Lysimachia nummularia

Flag, Sweet

Acorus calamus

Flag, Yellow

Iris pseudacorus

Goldenrods, dwarf

Solidago spp.

Harebell, Carpathian

Campanula carpatica

Iris, crested dwarf

Iris cristata

Iris, Yellow Flag

Iris pseudacorus

Iris, Dwarf

Iris pumila

Iris, Siberian

Iris siberica

Phlox, Creeping

Phlox subulata


Dianthus spp.


Primula spp.

Saxifrage, early

Saxifraga virginiensis


Saxifraga spp.


Thymus spp.


Anemone spp.

Low-growing grasses for rock gardens




Blue Fescue

Festuca ovina v. glauca

15-30 cm

Blue Fescue, large

Festuca pulchella

40 cm

Bluegrass, Alpine

Poa alpina

20 cm

Blue Hair Grass

Koeleria glauca

35 cm

Bluestem, Little

Schizachyrium scoparium

30-90 cm

Bottlebrush, Squirrel-tail

Sitanon hystrix

15-30 cm

Sweet Grass

Hierochloe odorata

40 cm

Tall grasses to create a backdrop for the rock garden

Bluestem, Big

Andropogon gerardii

150-180 cm

Bluestem, Little

Schizachyrium scoparium

30-90 cm

Brome Grass, Fringed Prairie

Bromus kalmii

100 cm

Brome Grass, Mountain

Bromus marginatus

60-100 cm

Blue-Bunch Wheatgrass

Elymus spicatus

60-90 cm

Canada Wild Rye

Elymus canadensis

180 cm

Fountain Grass

Pennisetum alopecuroides

60-120 cm

Great Basin Wild Rye

Elymus cinereus

90-150 cm

Indian Grass

Sorghastrum nutans

180 cm

Indian Rice Grass

Oryzopsis hymenoides

40-90 cm

Moor Grass

Molinia caerulea

90 cm

Prairie Cord Grass

Spartina pectinata

150 cm

Prairie Drop Seed

Sporobolus heterolepis

100 cm

Quaking Grass

Briza media

75 cm

Sweet Grass

Hierochloe odorata

40 cm

Switch Grass

Panicum virgatum

120-240 cm

Tufted Hair Grass

Deschampsia caespitosa

60-90 cm

Plants for shaded rock gardens



Plantain lilies

Hosta spp.

Christmas Fern

Polystichum acrostichoides

Cinnamon Fern

Osmunda cinnamonea

Deer Fern

Blechnum spicant

Evergreen Wood Fern

Dryopteris intermedia

Hay-scented Fern

Dennstaedtia punctilobula

Maidenhair Fern

Adiantum pedatum

Marginal Shield Fern

Dryopteris marginalis

Ostrich Fern

Matteuccia struthiopteris

Sensitive Fern

Onoclea sensibilis

Shade-loving wildflowers


Hardy bulbs for shade or sun

Narcissi, Dwarf

Narcissus spp.


Scilla spp.


Galanthus spp.

Water plants f
or a moist rock gardens



Fern, Marsh

Thelypteris palustris

Flag, Sweet

Acorus calamus

Flag, Yellow

Iris pseudacorus

Japanese primrose

Primula japonica


Nelumbo nucifera or Nelumbo lutea

Marigold, Marsh

Caltha palustris

Pickerel Weed

Pontederia cordata

Pond Lily, small

Nuphar microphyllum

Rice, Wild

Zizania aquatica

Zizania aquatica

Chelone lyonii

Water Lily

Nymphaea hybrid

Sedges for moist areas




Gray’s Sedge, Morning Star Sedge

Carex grayii

60-90 cm

Palm-Branched Sedge

Carex muskingumensis

75 cm


Ground covers
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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:






Thymus montanus or
T. serphyllum

2-10 cm

Thyme is a low-growing ground cover for full sun and dry sandy soil. It is especially useful between paving stones. The leaves are scented and the flowers appear in late spring.


Ajuga reptans

10 cm

Ajuga is a fast-spreading ground cover that will thrive in sun to light shade and moist soil. Spikes of deep blue flowers appear in late spring over shiny rosettes of dark purplish-green leaves. Multi-coloured cultivars are available. `Braunherz' is particularly resistant to insect attacks.

Sweet Woodruff

Galium odoratum

45 cm

Sweet woodruff likes moist, shady spots and is useful for places where grass will not grow. It has whorled green foliage. Tiny white flowers appear in the spring.

Lily of the Valley

Covallaria majalis

20 cm

Lily of the Valley  spreads fairly quickly. Its thickly-growing upright leaves suppress almost all other plants when grown in moist soil and medium to deep shade. The highly fragrant flowers appear in the spring.


Vinca minor

15 cm

Periwinkle prefers medium to deep shade. It has shiny evergreen leaves, blue flowers in the spring and, once established, withstands dry conditions. Young plants must be watered until they become established. Some weeding may be required.


Aegopodium podagraria

15 cm

Goutweed spreads rapidly by underground roots and grows in full sun to medium shade. It has cream-coloured leaves. Control growth by mowing around the edge of the path two or three times a year.

Japanese Spurge

Pachysandra terminalis

15 cm

Japanese Spurge grows best in light to dark shade and well-drained soil. Some have variegated leaves. Control spread by mowing around the edge of the planting as required.

Creeping Phlox

Phlox stolonifera

15 cm

Creeping Phlox forms dense mats of spreading stems and has many small blue, pink or white flowers in the spring. It needs full sun, well-drained soil, and some weeding. The centre of large plants tends to die off.

Creeping Juniper

Juniperus horizontalis

20-60 cm

Creeping Juniper grows slowly, but it is excellent for covering slopes of well-drained rocky soil. It needs full sun, dry soil and good air circulation.

Three-toothed Cinquefoil

Potentilla tridentata

25 cm

Three-toothed cinquefoil is a good creeper for rocky sites and dry sunny slopes. It has small white flowers in early summer with leaves turning reddish in fall.

Foam Flower

Tiarella cordifolia

25 cm

Foam Flower grows in medium to heavy shade and rich moist soil. Spikes of white flowers appear in the spring.

Crown Vetch

Coronilla varia

30 cm

Crown vetch will thrive in sunny places that are too dry for grass. Plants form an intertwined mass which flowers all summer.

Blue Fescue

Coronilla varia

40 cm

Blue Fescue has very fine-textured, blue-green, dense foliage. It can be used as a ground cover to replace lawn in little-used areas.

Drooping Sedge

Carex pendula

60-120 cm

Drooping Sedge is a tall, arching plant. It needs plenty of space and is very handsome year-round. Great quantities of delicate drooping stems of green flowers are produced in the spring and remain throughout the season. This sedge is perfect if you have a large shady area where moisture is assured.

 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.

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By participating in creating niches for plants and animals on the school grounds, children can learn to appreciate the value of wildlife and determine the preferred habitat of different plants and animals as well as the relationships between them.

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.

Geology gardens

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Photo: Lorne Peterson

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.

Native grasses

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.

Plants for crafts

Growing your own craft materials saves money and demonstrates to children that there are alternatives to buying from stores.

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Willows can be grown in moist areas where puddling occurs and children can harvest the supple stems for weaving into mats, baskets and simple furniture. Living fences can be created by growing plants such as willows and weaving together the young flexible stems. Living fences can be grown for a number of different purposes: to provide pockets of shade with seating; to create a 'barrier' to separate active from passive spaces; to make green archways by weaving together the tops of plants growing either side of gateways and pathways; and to create a protective basket of woven living stems around a tree space.

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.

Mini-beast gardens

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Photograph by Robin Moore
Play for All

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

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.

Pathways between plantings

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.

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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.

Bird-feeding stations

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.

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Creating a bird feeding station is a project which allows children to look at all aspects of bird habitat. Classes can make their own bird feeders and nesting boxes with assistance from local field naturalists clubs, stewardship councils, Community Wildlife Involvement Programme manuals and other resources. Many bird and natural gardening books include plans and diagrams for constructing feeders and nesting boxes. Birds are very particular about where they build their nests. First identify the species that may be attracted to your site. You will then need to determine the nesting box specifications for each species including: the size and shape of the box; the colour and texture of both the inside and the outside of the box; the size and shape of the hole into the box; the height of the box from the ground; and its orientation and sunlight exposure. Woodworkers from among the school community can be asked to help out with building them.

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.

Bat roosting boxes

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.

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