If you have a child who attends school in the Los Altos School District, chances are you know something about native plants. That’s because from kindergarten through eighth grade, the Living Classroom Program offers lessons that take place in each school’s native habitat garden. Children become familiar with the plants as they learn about the critters that pollinate them, how Native Americans used them and where they fit into the ecosystem.
Nine schools now have native habitat gardens; the oldest one was installed seven years ago at Oak Avenue School. Vicki Moore, who developed the Living Classroom, a program of the Los Altos Community Foundation, said the gardens were deliberately planned as plant communities, with groups of plants that might occur together in the wild, so that students can “learn what nature does” and “understand that these plants belong here.” She chose individual plants for their beauty, their traditional uses or their ecological niche. Descriptive signs identify the plants and provide information about them.
The goal of the Living Classroom Program is to make nature “part of the everyday experience at school, not occasional field trips that you need to organize transportation to get to,” Moore said. “Hands-on, real life, real things.”
Seeing and hearing creeping, crawling, flying and buzzing life in the garden captures the imagination of children, and the lessons point out the interrelationships between plants and animals.
Taking root in the classroom
First-graders get excited about the “Who’s My Habitat?” lesson, Moore said. Each student receives a placard with information about either a plant or an animal, with clues about which animal is important to that plant. The children find their partners, then locate the plant in the native habitat garden. They’re also attuned to other animals that may be visiting the garden, such as butterflies or hummingbirds.
Third-grade teacher Janis Tjader said her students enjoy the Ohlone scavenger hunt. They obtain descriptions of how the Ohlone used the plants, such as for medicine, food or making baskets, then search the descriptive signs in the garden to find the Ohlone usage and name the plant.
The Living Classroom Program offers four to 12 lessons per year depending on the grade, and more than 80 percent of teachers sign up for lessons. The program is in its fifth year in Los Altos, and this year began offering lessons to third-graders in the Mountain View-Whisman School District. Half the lessons focus on edibles, such as “Seed to Pretzel,” and half focus on the native habitat garden.
The school gardens are special places, more so because they are accessible to all students. During recess, children who are not drawn to competitive sports and are more attracted to quiet activities and unstructured, creative play come to the native habitat garden. Moore has found pretend villages made of tanbark, acorns, moss and branches.
The native habitat gardens are not only available to students. The gardens have elicited support from the community. Local Eagle Scouts have done most of the garden-building work with materials donated or discounted by local retailers, and parent volunteers get the garden in shape before the school year starts. Thirty volunteer docents from the community help with the lessons. Parents attending soccer games have also wandered into the Oak native habitat garden, sometimes noting the plants they “have to have,” Moore said.
Gardening at home
Those who have native gardens at home can reinforce and expand on the lessons. Catherine Mohr, whose Mountain View yard was a construction site three years ago, has talked with her 9-year-old daughter about how spotted newts and other animals reinhabited the garden as they planted natives.
On a family camping trip to Big Sur, they observed plants in the coastal chaparral and redwood understory plant communities that mirror the ones in their own garden: “We have that plant!” or “Wouldn’t it be great in our garden!” Mohr has given her daughter a sense of ownership in the garden by inviting her to accompany her to the nursery and help choose plants.
The garden is designed for creative play. Near the edible garden, Mohr has pruned a large fig tree so that several children can sit in it and use it as a fort. Her daughter makes paths and hiding places in the wildflower meadow, which reaches 4 feet high in the summer. The front yard, which is more open with a durable groundcover, is favored for swordplay.
The key, Mohr said, is to “let things get damaged.” The rule is that the children can’t pull up plants, but that she won’t get mad if something gets broken. Fortuitously, she has discovered that natives often come back the next year even if they look dead or were trampled to the ground.
Her daughter has grown a jarful of tadpoles into Pacific treefrogs, so the family talks about how susceptible amphibians are to pesticides worldwide and why they garden organically. That also means anything in the edible garden is safe to eat – and none of the berries make it inside the house.
Use of resources permeates discussions in the household. The wildflower meadow is not watered in the summer, greywater from sinks and showers is routed to the fruit trees and rainwater is cached. See photos of Mohr’s garden at tinyurl.com/aahen5c.
Growing a green wall
A modern green wall of native plants at a Los Altos Hills residence offers a different interpretation of a family-friendly garden. In this case, using natives means lower maintenance and less water use.
The homeowners’ two boys love the green wall and get “fired up” when they see hummingbirds, butterflies and other critters, designer Geoffrey Coffey said. He chose plants with habitat value as well as soft textures and aromatic leaves.
The north-facing green wall was an elegant solution to a very steep, eroding hillside that threatened the house’s foundation. The lower green wall – 25 feet long and 4 feet high – borders an outdoor patio that connects to the kitchen door. A new path between the upper and lower green walls connects to the front of the house. Downhill from the patio is a valley oak with a rope swing, also popular with the boys.
See photos of the green wall and its construction at tinyurl.com/ahy6bzs.
For more information on the Living Classroom Program, visit living-classroom.org.
Both the Mountain View and Los Altos Hills gardens described will be open to the public on this year’s Going Native Garden Tour April 21. To register, visit goingnativegardentour.org.
How to engage children in the garden
- Teach them to look for signs of birds, insects, lizards, butterflies and other life. Help them notice how they interact with specific plants.
- Think about where the critters go when they go home. Insects, birds and lizards are not passing through – a garden with native plants is their habitat. Some critters live in the leaf litter, others live in the soil or in thickets or way up in trees.
- Tell a story. Once they’ve heard the story about Douglas fir cones, they will always remember what they look like, with the little “mouse feet” sticking out.
- Add running water. It attracts wildlife, which attracts children.
- Give them a sense of ownership by involving them in planning or plant selection or by inviting them to show off the garden to other people.
- Enable open-ended, creative play. Don’t worry about a trampled plant here and there.
- Be the still point in the turning world. One teacher takes her English class on a “12-inch hike” in the native habitat garden. Students sit still and listen and then write or draw detailed pictures of the plants and animals they see and hear.
- Get on a first-name basis. Putting plant labels in the garden helps adults remember plant names, too.
- Learn how plants were used. What if everything you used in everyday life came from nature? For Native Americans, that was the reality. Food, shelter, medicine and cordage came from plants.
- Touch and smell the plants. Feel the textures of different leaves. Rub the leaves to release the aromatics. And if it’s a wild area, learn to identify poison oak before anyone touches any leaves.
- Know what’s edible. It’s fun to graze in the garden. Have an organic food garden in your yard or plant some edible natives.
- When you visit wild areas, look for connections to your native garden. Looking at a 1,000-year-old redwood in Big Sur, local resident Catherine Mohr asked her daughter, “What will our yard look like in 1,000 years?”
- Discuss how decisions you make in the garden relate to wider issues such as biodiversity, pollinator conservation, climate change and water resources.
– Tanya Kucak