Volume 27 Issue 1, Winter 2022
by Anne Owen, Audubon at Home Program Coordinator Emeritus
As the garden lab coordinator and a kindergarten teacher at Frederick Douglass Elementary (FDE) in Leesburg, Marykirk Cunningham has always wanted her young students to be involved with nature, plants, and gardening. With the help of her horticulturist father Bob Goodhart, husband Jim Cunningham, and the FDE staff and families, she created the amazing Garden Lab that sits in the school’s courtyard and has become a wonderful educational tool. Supported by volunteer parents, garden learning has been incorporated into the curriculum for kindergarten and the rest of the school. Before the advent of COVID, parent and PTA Garden Lab Committee chair Ami Mason, a Virginia Master Naturalist (VMN), would meet with different classes from all grades to plant seeds and do small lessons from the garden.
Parents and families could support the garden throughout the summer, but due to COVID restrictions for the new school year parents and volunteers were no longer allowed into the Garden Lab. Marykirk had the idea to create a new “Wildlife Habitat Lab,” which would feature native plants that support wildlife in our area, adding a new and important dimension for the school and extra learning-in-nature space for the children.
“We wanted to extend our living learning labs to the exterior of the building and make an area for students, staff, and the community to use to focus on native wildlife and native habitats.” Marykirk said. “It would be a focal point that is relevant and creates an opportunity to learn firsthand the importance of having native plants.”
This new lab was to be situated around the entrance to the school. Ami invited Audubon at Home to make a site visit, and with the help of Ambassador BJ Lecrone, they produced a list of recommendations for native plants and shrubs that would do well in the tough, dry, all-day full sun conditions, be relatively affordable and low-maintenance, and be actively blooming throughout the school year. Very thoughtfully, Ami added some other considerations to resonate with the school, focusing on white, yellow, or blue flowers to match the school colors!
Once the school was on board with the proposals, Ami recruited some fellow VMN volunteers to remove as many of the existing non-native trees, shrubs, and plants as possible, ready to begin the replanting process in the fall of 2020. She was able to source all the recommended plants at Watermark Woods Native Plants in Hamilton, ensuring that they are indeed native and are free of systemic insecticides. She has continued to add plants throughout 2021, saying “I am happy that this project is right in front of the school so that parents and other members of the community can see that native landscaping is beautiful and better than the non-native ornamental plants that people are used to seeing.”
Ami has now taken the project one huge step further, by writing a “User Manual for the Wildlife Habitat Lab” to help teachers and volunteers make the most of the new learning opportunities. The manual provides a map of each section of the new lab, with common and Latin names of all of the plants, and includes lots of helpful details, such as when they can be expected to flower, flower shape and color, and most important, their wildlife associations, so that student and teachers know what to look for when they visit. Interestingly, Ami lists the plants in flowering date order, but starting in the fall, when students will be arriving for the start of their new school year. Thus the manual follows the flow of the school year, hopefully starting off with seeing Monarch caterpillars and butterflies on Milkweed in late summer.
There are many ideas for segments of lesson plans too, such as feeling the softness of flower petals, noting the square stems on plants in the Mint family, or smelling the leaves of Fragrant Sumac and Scarlet Bee Balm. There are interesting questions to ponder, such as what happens to the plants that disappear entirely in winter only to pop up again in spring, or why a few leaves hang on to some shrubs throughout the winter. Journaling and drawing the plants helps hone observation skills, through activities like counting the petals on a flower or noting exactly how a visiting native bumblebee carries pollen on its legs.
“Marykirk has been such an influential person in advocating for nature education,” Ami said. “I hope that the children that attend the school, including three of my own, will always have a piece of these natural ‘labs’ in their heart and will continue to expand their knowledge of nature throughout their lives.”
All of us at Loudoun Wildlife totally concur and are extremely impressed with the vision and commitment of Marykirk, Ami, BJ, Watermark Woods, and everyone else involved in this wonderful project. Congratulations on having the new Wildlife Habitat Lab certified as an Audubon at Home Wildlife Sanctuary.