As Habitat Heroes our goal is to work with the community to practice a form of landscape stewardship called “wildscaping” – landscaping designed in mind to attract and benefit birds and other wildlife. And this was exactly the mission of Twin Spruce Junior High and their after-school Teen Room/Science Club project.
This school in Gillette, WY has an unkempt garden bed in an alley way that was neglected and became a trash repository over the years. Katie Brunson, eighth-grade science teacher, Master Gardeners, and the students determined that fixing up the garden would be a great project and learning opportunity. This is where Audubon Rockies, Habitat Heroes Coordinator, Jamie Weiss helped with their vision – by putting together a garden plan with multiple phases to help with the transformation of the large 100’ X 30’ planting area. Not only would this garden be aesthetically pleasing and offer the much needed facelift, but also provide habitat for a community of wildlife ranging from insects to pollinators and birds! A Habitat Hero garden can be as simple as lining a few potted plants on a balcony, replacing sterile turf grass in your residential yard with native shrubs, grasses perennials and wildflowers, or even a schoolyard garden among concrete sidewalks, buildings and playgrounds, all of which provide refuge with food, water and shelter for critters large and small.
With guidance from local Master Gardeners over the weeks leading up to the planting event, phase one of the garden transformation included removing weeds, clearing space for new plants and mulching. Weiss then joined the crew on Earth Day, Wednesday April 22, to help facilitate the planting of wildflowers and lead a workshop demonstrating how food webs need plants, to bring in other insects, birds, mammals and reptiles. Without plants, the relationships between these other critters are greatly diminished and once healthy ecosystems begin to unravel.
One of the gardening challenges we had to face was the harsh climate of Northern Wyoming which receives only10 inches of rain annually, strong winds, extreme temperature variations from day to night and a garden that requires little up-keep and maintenance. Working with High Country Gardens, we selected hardy plants that we knew could thrive in these demanding conditions and came up with a great selection of grasses and native wildflowers to create an eye-catching design and offer pronounced garden diversity of bloom times, vertical structure, textures and colors while providing great habitat for wildlife.
Dakota Sunshine Maximilian’s Sunflower was a real crowd pleaser as the students look forward to its growth and seeing this mature plant reach a height of 6 feet and a large sunflower disc that can be a foot across! This easily recognizable plant is a show-stopper and brings back nostalgia, reminiscent of memories with nature and hot summer days. The seeds offer great nutrients for songbirds throughout the winter when food provisions are scarce. We also planted Llano Indian Grass, which provides vertical structure creating a middle canopy layer next to the spruce. This showy grass also serves as a windbreak and provides texture for your garden with the added benefits of providing seeds for birds and offering nesting materials and shelter.
Jeana Garden Phlox and Husker Red Beardtounge are medium sized perennials that were planted in the middle of the garden as their pink and white flowers, respectively, are a magnet for butterflies and hummingbirds alike. Firefly Coral Bells and Purple Dome Aster lined the paved walkway winding through the garden. The Firefly Coral Bells is an early bloomer which provides much needed food early in the season for hummingbirds, while the Aster has an extended bloom time through the end of summer into early fall attracting an array of insect pollinators.
The students will continue to improve the garden by planting a blend of wildflowers to create a high country meadow. The hardy, drought resistant seed mix contains over 20 natives species that will thrive with little maintenance and are great for attracting pollinators. Other features to be added in time will be a paved walkway through the garden with benches for sitting and contemplation. The goal for this bird-friendly schoolyard garden is to encourage students to ponder questions from their observations, hands-on experience and discoveries – like, “What season do the juncos and finches flit around the plants enjoying seeds?” or “How does the garden change both visually and by the creatures that it attracts throughout the year?”
We look forward to hearing from the students and seeing photos of this garden as it transforms and evolves into a beautiful space that is enjoyed by the students and faculty at Twin Spruce and the wildlife that call this schoolyard garden home!