NWF Demo Habitat Created for Austin ISD

On May 16 a very special event took place here in Austin, the ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially open a large demonstration schoolyard habitat for Austin Independent School District. This project, led by the National Wildlife Federation, was created at AISD’s Science and Health Resource Center in South Austin.

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The habitat is intended to serve as a field trip location for students of all grades in Austin and other local school districts, a place to train science teachers in outdoor education and field investigation, a place to instruct AISD employees about proper maintenance of a habitat, and a place to give living examples of the wildlife-friendly native plants that students and teachers can use on their own campuses.

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Why do outdoor-education sites like this matter? Schoolyard habitats have been shown to improve children’s academic success in reading, mathematics, science, and problem solving. There are physical and emotional health benefits, as well. Students who spend quality time outdoors are less at risk for obesity or diabetes. Additionally, they have improved self-esteem, are better behaved in the classroom, and experience relief from stress they might be experiencing at school or at home. In a nutshell, time spent outdoors connecting with nature makes kids happier, healthier, and better students. Add to all that the fact that as students directly experience the wonders of nature, they are more likely to become environmental stewards as adults.

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This demo habitat was made possible in part from a grant from Toyota USA Foundation, as well as NWF’s partnership with AISD.¬†Marya Fowler, Senior Education Manager for National Wildlife Federation, along with other members of the regional office, rallied additional support from the Austin school district, local businesses and environmental organizations, members of the community, and many volunteers. Anne Muller, the AISD Outdoor Learning Specialist, also consulted on the project and provided on-site attention to the young habitat throughout its development.

demohabO05-16-13 The habitat was designed by Environmental Survey Consulting, an Austin company known well for their design of the butterfly gardens at the Wildflower Center.demohabL05-16-13 The list of native plants is long, and all the hardscape materials came from local sources. Different ecological examples are displayed, including meadows, woodland habitats, and even a full-sun xeric area. The site includes benches, a water feature, and a rain collection system. Already present was a solar-power learning station, making this quite the science center. Additionally, there is built-in space for educational signs and an additional shade structure, to be added in the future.
demohabG05-16-13This project could not have been done without the work of dedicated volunteers. Over many workdays spread throughout several months, Habitat Stewards, Master Naturalists, neighbors, AISD, and other community volunteers tackled the challenge of creating pathways, moving dirt and rocks, planting hundreds of plants, and more. Additional work was provided by Environmental Survey Consulting.

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More than 100 people attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony, including representatives from NWF, AISD, the Children in Nature Collaborative of Austin, Austin Habitat Stewards, Capital Area Master Naturalists, Native Plant Society of Texas, and other groups, as well as many students, teachers, and families.demohabR05-16-13demohabK05-16-13

demohabI05-16-13 Even Ranger Rick made a surprise appearance!demohabFF05-16-13

Students from the nearby Pleasant Hill Elementary unveiled their chosen name for the habitat, “Discovery Hill: Bugs, Brains, and Blooms.” It’s perfect.demohabH05-16-13 demohabB05-16-13

To give you an idea of how remarkable a change has taken place, take a look at the following Before and After pictures. Note that the Arizona Ash tree seen in the Before pictures was removed as part of the installation process. Arizona Ash trees are not native to Texas and are not long-lived — for this reason, the tree was removed so that other native trees could take its place.

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After:

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And After:demohabE05-16-13

I love to report on such beautiful and successful transformations. This habitat is going to enrich the lives of many thousands of students in the years to come. But let’s not forget the wildlife that will benefit, too! Already butterflies, birds, bees, and other creatures have found the habitat, and it won’t be long before this young habitat is truly a haven for wildlife.

Note: For more information on the project and its development, please visit¬†http://rockstoroots.wordpress.com/. If you’d like to make a tax-deductible donation to National Wildlife Federation to help with the next stage of the project (including educational signs and a shade structure), links are provided there.

Murchison Middle School Creates a Habitat

I’m honored to have been a witness to the transformation of an ordinary, high-traffic area of an Austin schoolyard lawn to a most outstanding wildlife habitat, and I just have to show it off.

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The Murchison habitat, with the school’s greenhouse
and solar panel in the background. Temporary fencing
helps discourage deer while young plants are growing.
 

The habitat team at Murchison Middle School, led by science teacher Bret Korba, had the opportunity to participate in a small grant program being offered by National Wildlife Federation to several Austin-area schools. In order to receive the grant, each habitat team had to fulfill multiple requirements, including providing a detailed habitat design and implementation plan.

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All the basic elements of a habitat are provided:
food, water, cover, and places to raise young.

The Murchison team hit the ground running, starting right away to make their project a reality. They selected a site near their school’s existing greenhouse and vegetable garden, they studied student traffic and water run-off across the site, and they contacted the district grounds department for project site approval. Throughout the process, they kept their administration and PTA informed and involved, soliciting assistance when needed.

Here’s the area before any work was done:

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A blank slate, if ever I saw one!

Dedicated parent volunteer Narda Fisher created a beautiful design and wildlife-friendly plant list, and the team moved ahead with planning workdays, ordering materials, and gathering volunteers. The goal, aside from creating a functional outdoor learning space, was to have a successful wildlife habitat filled with almost all native Texas plants.

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What I love about this design is that it shows how easily a colorful visual of a habitat plan can be created using just a simple program like Paint. The advantage to making a colorful representation of a school’s future garden is that you can share it with students, parents, and the community to encourage their enthusiasm and volunteerism, and you can also show it to local businesses and organizations to help solicit donations of materials or funds.

murchisonprogressb2011.jpgRight away, students became a part of preparing the beds, digging out grass, moving rocks, and marking pathways. Some of the students were members of the school’s Green Team, a large afterschool club that takes care of Murchison’s vegetable garden and sometimes other areas of the school grounds. Take a look at the thriving vegetable garden the students have been working on:
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My stomach still growls with hunger as I remember the delicious smell of eggs and fresh herbs that teacher and habitat team member Benjamin Newton was cooking in the greenhouse for the Green Team students one day when I stopped by with some native seeds — yum. FYI, this student club meets twice a week, and their dedication and active involvement really shows. 

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View of early progress

During school, several Murchison teachers brought their classes out to help with the garden. Additionally, a couple of volunteer Saturday workdays brought rapid progress to the final bed preparation and planting.

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Same view, after habitat completion

In order to provide well-drained soil for the native plants, volunteers and students utilized some of the soil dug out from pathways and combined it with supplemental soil, the excellent Thunder Dirt from GeoGrowers.

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A simple unmortared retaining well keeps the mounded soil in place while allowing lizards and other small wildlife to seek shelter. The rocks were collected from a school neighbor who was having construction done on her house. The single-shred mulch used to protect the plants and suppress weeds was donated by a school parent.

murchisonf02-03-12.jpgWhile the team sought out donations where they could, part of their grant funds went to purchasing plants, soil, decomposed granite, bricks, and the stock tank. The PTA assisted by paying for someone to level and lay down the brick path that guides most of the daily student traffic between their classes. For the interior habitat pathways, the habitat team chose decomposed granite.

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Little touches really enhance the garden. A tall birdbath within the pond makes it easier for birds to drink, and rocks within the pond offer an escape route for any animal that might accidentally slip in. Ongoing residents of the pond include Gambusia, or mosquito fish. 

murchisonk02-03-12.jpgmurchisonl02-03-12.jpgBroken pots create perfect little toad shelters, and there’s even a solar-panel water wheel in the pond. Nearby, birdfeeders and birdhouses adorn large trees.

murchisoni02-03-12.jpgAlready, Murchison’s habitat team and Green Team are prepping new habitat beds and an area for a large rain tank. With such a variety of elements, Murchison teachers will be able to take their classes outdoors to utilize the new habitat for countless curriculum applications.

Schoolyard habitats like this are so critical for our children who, in a world of technological dependency and urban concrete, often do not have much direct exposure to nature. Studies have shown that outdoor time helps reduce childhood obesity and helps increase emotional health, academic success, and creativity. Their health and Earth’s future are dependent on kids spending time outdoors, connecting with nature.

murchisonj02-03-12.jpgIt takes a team to create a new schoolyard habitat, whether it be small or large. The team can be made of teachers, students, parents, school staff, and/or community members, and working together, they can change the world, so to speak. But for a schoolyard habitat to be the most successful, it’s also imperative that the school’s administration offer positive support, that many teachers get involved, and that the school district help open doors to allow change and outdoor learning time on school grounds. 

But every school’s situation is different, and sometimes volunteers have a big role in helping a project like this succeed. If you have a chance to be a part of helping design, build, or maintain a school habitat or vegetable garden, I do hope you’ll jump at the chance and help kids have an outdoor space they can learn and benefit from.

I commend the Murchison habitat team and administration for sharing their love of nature with their students and getting them outdoors, and for creating a beautiful habitat that will help provide for wildlife for years to come. Murchison Middle School, congratulations!

 

If you are interested in creating an outdoor learning space at your local school, visit NWF’s webpages on schoolyard habitats for excellent resources such as how-to guides, lesson plans, and more.

5,000 Gallons of Rainwater

It’s been a very busy but exciting week at school. Our big 5,000-gallon rain tank was installed!

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It will collect water off our big metal roof, and the water will be used to support our wildlife habitat.

raintankb11-17-10.jpgI was giddy, to say the least — this project has been in the works for several months now, and it was so rewarding to finally get to the big day. And lots of kids got to watch the process. I have to say that it was very cool to see that tank in the sky.

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There’s still some landscaping and painting and whatnot to do, but the tank itself is completely installed. Now we just need rain!

Heart Strings

No photos. Just a moment of sharing. Last week and today I presented a slideshow tour to teachers from different elementary schools and middle schools about the process involved in the creation of the habitat at my son’s school, and this evening I got to share the story with the latest NWF Habitat Steward trainees. It’s just been one of those feel-good days. How warm my heart gets when I take moments to really reflect on all the accomplishments of the past year and the goals of the year to come… the lives I’m touching by the work that I’m doing. Tomorrow I get to go out into the habitat with language arts students to find real-life examples of words based on the root “foli-” (leaf), and next week I get to spend time with Kindergarteners showing them the wildlife in our habitat and looking for signs of fall. It all just feels really good. Ya know?

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with the red tape I run into from time to time — or frustrated by little snags along the way. Sometimes I wonder how in the world I got into such an enormous project (the finger points right back to me). Thank goodness for those who help where they can or take on big, big jobs and ongoing roles (one of them reads this blog and he knows I’m talking mostly about him right now). Thank goodness for my family, who never complain when they have to cook their own dinner or get volunteered to volunteer. It’s certainly been a learning process, this project. But it’s all worth it, seeing those kids loving nature (and seeing all the happy wildlife, too).

The Moth That Ate Texas

Ever have those moments you so very much wish you had your camera with you? If you are lucky, you might at least have your camera phone with you. And if you are really lucky, the picture you take might actually turn out okay. And then, if you are really, really lucky, the picture might even turn out pretty cool.

imperialmothb08-31-10.jpgThe power of window reflection — that’s our schoolyard habitat in the background.

imperialmothc08-31-10.jpgThis moth delighted kids and parents alike as it rested for hours on a school window. It appears to be an Imperial Moth, Eacles imperialis, but I prefer to call it Mothra. Now we just need Godzilla!

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imperialmothd08-31-10.jpgI want to send out a thanks to my friend Richard for taking the time to identify the moth — it sure is one worth knowing.

We’ve got a busy habitat year ahead of us at the school already. My poor garden at home is already getting neglected… again!

School Daze

As I turned into the school driveway this morning, I was thrilled to notice a beautiful scene from far away — it was our habitat! It’s really something when a garden grows big enough to be an eye-catcher.

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Not only that, but it’s teeming with wildlife. The Queen butterflies ruled the habitat — I couldn’t count them, there were so many.

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In the sun and the heat, the Texas natives put on a rainbow-colored show.

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Can you believe this garden is only 3 months old? Click the link above to see it back in March.

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Aside from all the butterflies, there were bumblebees and honeybees, an assassin bug with its prey, a bird visiting a birdbath, and so much more. The students and teachers are going to be in for such a big surprise when they come back to school in August!

Love Your Mother… Earth

That was a saying on one of the Earth Day posters at my son’s school. Loved it.

Today was a very special Earth Day, marking the official dedication of our new butterfly-hummingbird garden at school. We were proud to be officially recognized by National Wildlife Federation as a certified habitat and by Texas Parks and Wildlife as a Texas Wildscapes Schoolyard Habitat Demonstration Site. It rained, but it was a perfect gift for Earth on Earth Day (here in Austin, rain is always precious), so we didn’t mind having to move the ceremony indoors.

 
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nwfsign.jpgAnd our students presented community and organization representatives with fantastic 3-D murals that teach about creating wildlife habitats at home.

Oh yeah, I got to be on the news. I even managed to speak coherently. 

It was a good day. Happy Earth Day, everyone.

Our New Schoolyard Habitat

It astounds me that a simple idea can turn into a phenomenal event just a few short months later. We decided that our school should be certified as a schoolyard habitat with the National Wildlife Federation, and with that was born the idea of creating a rather big butterfly-hummingbird garden filled with drought-hardy native TX plants. And after much planning, donation-gathering, more planning, and incredible hard work by volunteer crews of individuals, families, school neighbors, and Habitat Stewards, we have our new habitat.

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This arbor was created by one of our parents, and it’s such a beautiful welcome into the habitat. Eventually we’ll have a sign showing the habitat name.

 
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Many plants and supplies were donated, and the rest were purchased through fundraising.

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Labels identify the plants — these will eventually reflect which plants are caterpillar host plants, hummingbird plants, sensory plants, etc.

schoolhabitatd03-27-10.jpgWe can’t wait for the plants to fill in and grow big. On our big planting day, we saw our first two butterflies! The next phase is to install a big water collection system. Nothing’s over yet!

Sustainable — Loving and Living It

“Sustainable” — it’s the new catchword and the new black. It’s a word I’m trying to reiterate over and over again with my family, and now that I’m leading a big habitat project at our elementary school, it’s a term I’m making sure our students know, as well.

Doves, mind you, don’t seem to understand the word “sustainable” nor the word “reduce,” the little wasteful gluttons. But on occasion, they do lend themselves out for a nice winter picture, so for the moment I’ll forgive them.

dove02-10-10.jpgIt warms my heart to see how many bloggers are spreading the word about environmental care by encouraging fellow bloggers to think, act, and make lifestyle changes in regard to taking care of Earth. Suzy at HipMountainMama is leading One Small Change, Dee at RedDirt Ramblings recently hosted a reel mower giveaway, and Jan at Thanks for Today has established the Garden Bloggers Sustainable Living Project.

sustainableliving.jpgThis post is multi-purpose. One, I need to report on my One Small Change progress for January and February. Two, I want to partake in Jan’s Sustainable Living Project, and three, I want to share all these bird photos I just got this morning! I’ve been trying to find woodpeckers in the trees for months, and I was shocked to finally see one — at our birdfeeder!

rbwoodpkr02-10-10.jpgTaking all these shots, I was reminded that our kitchen window could really stand a good vinegar wash. 

 In my own garden, as many know, I’m dedicated to planting as many drought-hardy Texas native plants with organic methods as I can. My plants are like my children — I want to nurture them when they are young, help them grow up big and strong, and guide them to being able to make it on their own. Someday, we might move away from this house, and if my plants aren’t able to survive without care, they might not make it. I also long to be lazy — the better my plants can establish, the less I’ll have to do… one day.

My biggest project at the moment is guiding our elementary school to become a Certified Schoolyard Habitat. We’re putting in a new butterfly-hummingbird garden as Phase 1, and the list of Phase 2 environmental projects is growing — we’ll be putting a water collection system and more. Co-existing with this habitat project is another project for the 3rd- and 4th-graders — learning about wildlife habitats and then teaching the community about them through 3-D murals. The excitement over habitats is spreading fast, and I feel so good helping our students become environmental stewards.

rbwoodpkrb02-10-10.jpgOn my sidebar, I call myself green-blooded. While my blood might *look* red, especially when I cut myself on a thorny spine or do some other clumsy thing in the garden, my heart and soul are always thinking about ways to protect the environment, and so my blood really runs green. If you put on your special Super-Enviro-Power goggles, you’ll be able to see it. If you don’t have any, then I’ll just raise my hand in a Vulcan greeting. 

In January, for One Small Change, I did three primary acts for the environment: I removed all remaining nandinas from my property, sending the bushes to city mulch and throwing away the berries. I also took all our old leftover chemical products, bleach, and paint from our past to the Austin Hazardous Waste Facility, and some from two of our neighbors. We’ve been using natural cleansers for a long while now, and finally the evidence from our former lifestyle is gone, gone, gone. And finally, I’ve been learning many different organic products to help gardeners stay green. I feel more knowledgable about offering green solutions to problems in the yard. Understanding the soil food web was a big part of this. It all begins in the earth, and truly everyday is Earth Day in my book. (Officially, Earth Day is celebrated on April 22).

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This month, my son asked us to make something for the wildlife for our February change. We are going to make a bee box or two and a screech owl house. Looking ahead to March, I think I want to train my family to open blinds daily to let the light shine in, and I want to strategically place mirrors to help get more natural light across our house without having to turn on artificial lights. There’s a tendency in this family to become inert in regard to opening/closing the blinds, and the result is way more “turning on the lights” than should be necessary. Right now my study blinds are open, and the cats are on my desk watching the birds outside, and the puppy is occasionally growling and barking at the hanging plant hovering outside. No, pup, it’s not an evil threat, but it would look nicer if the plant in it hadn’t died this winter.

I feel so hopeful this year that Earth is finally getting the kind of attention it so needs and deserves.

Take care of yourselves and our wonderful Earth this spring, and always. And live long and prosper. 

Hugs,

Meredith

  

School Habitat Project officially underway!

With students, teachers, and parents on board, my son’s elementary school is officially getting focused on wildlife habitats. We’ve got a community project planned for the third- and fourth-graders for the Legacy of Giving program, and if all goes well we’ll have a new butterfly and hummingbird garden planted in the spring, culminating in dedicating the school as a certified Schoolyard Habitat with the National Wildlife Federation on Earth Day.

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schoolhabitatboardb.jpgI’ve really been thrilled with the enthusiasm everyone has had about the habitat project. What makes me happiest is seeing how excited the kids are. Just wait until the wildlife finds about it!