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Top 10 Tips for Schoolyard Habitats®

1. Work with your school facility manager on plantings.

  • Consider the use of native plants that are indigenous to the soil conditions and climate. For a list of native plants in your state, visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center native plant database.
  • When planting, consider the soil conditions (pH factor, soil type, and moisture levels).
  • When planting, consider the orientation and surrounding conditions (north side of a building versus a southern exposure, proximity to solar heat gain from surrounding pavement or buildings, shady versus sunny conditions, and exposure to severe winter winds).
  • Avoid invasive species.

2. Establish water-efficient irrigation practices (typically the #1 use of water for schools).

  • Install an automatic rain shut-off device on sprinkler systems.
  • Adjust the irrigation schedule for seasonal changes.
  • Be sure all hoses have shut-off nozzles.
  • Use drip irrigation systems instead of sprinklers.
  • Shut off water supply to equipment or areas that are not used.

3. Select appropriate plantings.

  • Avoid high-maintenance plants. Select plants that will not drop flowers, nuts, and berries for locations adjacent to sidewalks and parking facilities.
  • Avoid plantings that are notorious for weak branching, and ones that generate significant debris or are vulnerable to severe wind and winter damage.
  • Provide shrubs or groundcover for areas that are difficult to mow, require soil stabilization, or will not sustain turf due to shade or slope conditions. In some cases, pave areas that receive constant pedestrian use.
  • Choose plants that are resistant to disease. Plant elm varieties resistant to Dutch elm disease, dogwoods in locations that make them less susceptible to anthracnose, and avoid ash varieties that are prone to borers.
  • Be aware of combinations of plants that result in rust disease, such as hawthorns and junipers.

4. Adopt appropriate pruning practices.

  • Prune ornamental trees in September to ensure maximum winter hardiness and to allow for flowering growth to appear in the spring and summer.
  • Prune suckers and cross branches to retain the desired form of the trees.
  • Respect the character of the plant when pruning shrubs. Many shrubs should be allowed to mass together as opposed to being pruned into an unnatural globe shape. Height should be maintained where necessary, but in most cases pruning should be done at least on an annual basis. Excessive pruning in older plants can leave bare areas destroying character and can take several years to recover.
  • Typically, excessive pruning and maintenance requirements result from installation of the wrong plants for the particular location. Think carefully about the site's needs, exposure, drainage and soil conditions.

5. Consider installing a rainwater catchment system as an alternate water supply.

  • Most developed areas today are designed to waste water, funneling rain down gutters and drain pipes rather than allowing it to soak into the ground where it can recharge the water table. In addition, the large amount of pavement on streets, parking lots and playgrounds contributes to the degradation of water quality. When rainwater flows across paved surfaces, it often picks up pollutants and particulates and then carries them into the nearest lake, river or ocean.
  • Rainwater catchment or "harvesting" is an ancient practice now enjoying a revival as an alternate water supply. The practice involves collecting rainwater from a roof or other surface before it reaches the ground and storing it for future use on school gardens, trees, and other planted areas.

6. Plant drought resistant "xeriscape" gardens.

  • Saves Water: Xeriscaping can reduce landscape water use by 50 to 75 percent. For most of North America, over 50 percent of residential and commercial water is used for landscapes and lawns.
  • Minimal Maintenance: Xeriscaping requires only occasional pruning and weeding. Watering requirements are low and can be met with simple irrigation systems.
  • No Fertilizers or Pesticides: Using plants native to your area will eliminate the need for chemical supplements. Sufficient nutrients are provided by healthy organic soil.
  • Improves Property Value: A good xeriscape can raise property values which more than offset the cost of installation. Protect your landscaping investment by drought-proofing it.
  • Pollution Free: Fossil fuel consumption from gas mowers is minimized or eliminated with minimal turf areas. Small turf areas can be maintained with a reel mower.
  • Provides Wildlife Habitat: Use of native plants, shrubs and trees offer a familiar and varied habitat for local wildlife.

7. Mulch appropriately.

  • Cover the soil's surface around plants with mulch, such as leaves, coarse compost, pine needles, wood chips, bark or gravel.
  • Mulch helps retain soil moisture and temperature, prevent erosion and block out competing weeds.
  • Organic mulch will slowly incorporate with the soil, and will need to be applied or "top-dressed" from time to time.
  • To be effective, mulch needs to be several inches thick. There should be no areas of bare soil.

8. Develop a "Shade Strategy" for your school.

  • One of the most effective ways of protecting students and staff from ultraviolet rays (UV) is to plant shade trees where people congregate. (around playground equipment, benches and tables, and along sports fields to offer refuge for spectators, players and officials)
  • Make use of existing shade by placing seating (logs, rocks, benches) under trees.
  • Program outdoor activities under existing shade trees.

9. Make connections between learning opportunities and administrative goals for increased environmental benefits and energy efficiency.

  • Engage the school's maintenance team at both the local and district level. Track the cost of maintaining the school grounds before and after landscaping changes and monitor progress for the school.
  • Consider new lawn care equipment (within the past two years). Energy efficiency has improved greatly and can offer major savings for school budgets.

10. Consider installing a food garden to begin developing a more sustainable approach to food.

  • Most schools have enough space in their grounds to grow fruit and vegetables, at least in planters or hanging baskets. Consider growing enough to provide the ingredients for cooking lessons, or even the school kitchens. Secondary schools can take this further by setting up market gardens and selling the produce as a business enterprise.
  • Grow organically as much as possible. If you are not experienced food growers, start with crops which are not overly prone to pest damage - such as new potatoes or fruit bushes - rather than vulnerable ones.
  • As well as fruits and vegetables, remember herbs. These are usually easy to grow, attractive, multi-sensory, good for wildlife and can expand children's taste horizons.
  • Find out when different crops will be ready. You don't want to spend months growing food which will ripen during the summer vacation when there is nobody there to harvest it.


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