Planting Seeds to Grow Empathy and Biodiversity

RCRPLANTING-CLOSEWe wanted it all: beauty, biodiversity, character development and learning. That’s why I’ve been growing native flowers from seed for the last five years. With the right seeds, equipment and method, it can be very easy, very rewarding and work toward many of my most important class/school goals all at once.  We’ll also be doing important work to support our local monarchs and other pollinators.

The Learning: Students learn curriculum and build character. I use growing native flowers from seed as an opportunity to talk about eco systems, invasive species and biodiversity in general as well as landscaping and horticulture professions. Sometimes we measure and graph the growth of our species. And, as a teacher working with students at-risk, I am always grateful for this activity as a chance for students to practice caring for something living, practicing being nurturing and thus working on their capacity for empathy. Watching this in action with my students has been a really rewarding experience.

The Equipment: You do not need a grow light stand, although it helps. For years I grew seeds only using a window ledge, I just had to start the seeds a bit earlier and choose the right plants. What you do need:

  • A self-watering seed tray from Lee Valley Tools. This is your best friend because it survives through March Break and it’s hard to overwater your plants. Thin versions are available that can perch on smaller windowsills.
  • Soil. Even cheap potting soil will be just fine.
  • A spray bottle with a gentle mist setting for watering young Hyssop (see below)
  • A few trowels
  • Seeds

Choosing the right seeds: Go native or go home! Native plants have vastly greater eco-system benefits and will survive better. Non-natives may actually be hurting your ecosystem. For Ontario schools, I recommend ordering seeds from Wild Flower Farm near Orillia. They have a variety of fantastic native Ontario seeds. However, for your first year, I highly recommend these three species as foolproof and great in the garden: 

Lavender HyssopAll three grow very easily. All three are long-lasting flowers that will be great to help our troubled pollinators. The most serious problem is usually that too many seeds sprout(ed) in each cell: an embarrassment of riches! If you plant them early enough, say early-mid February, you should see flowers in the first year! Just remember to follow the instructions on the packet, particularly for the Hyssop which needs the seeds to be “planted” on (the) top of the soil.

I’ll have more as we near the season for planting outside.  I don’t have any financial connection with Lee Valley Tools or Wild Flower Farms other than being a regular customer.


On Being a Green School

2013 was a good year.  Our efforts led David Suzuki SS to be a gold EcoSchool for its second year (the school is only two years old) and we were the top Green High School in Canada.  A lot of things had to go right in order for this to happen, which has me reflecting on the elements necessary for broad-based environmental success in schools:

Vision.  Opening a school named Suzuki gave us an edge – the environmental vision was clear. Yet, every teacher in the school had to buy-in to that vision in order to make our success happen.  Why did they?  I believe that feeling part of a grand narrative, one aiming to improve our planet, and feeling that such excellence was obtainable, was a powerful motivator.  Even those not active on the Eco Team knew that they could contribute to something bigger than themselves, something meaningful. And that felt good.

This isn’t exclusive to my fancy new school.  In a past school, an alternative education site for students at-risk, I had led some high profile environmental initiatives.  It did not take long for this narrative to transform the school.  I first noticed this as teachers previously uninterested in such work were suddenly suggesting that our logo needed to be green because of our green identity.  They were getting something out of our environmental work, it felt good and they wanted it to continue, maybe to even contribute. With students, the story was similar: feeling a part of something big and important generates motivation.  One way we’ve tried to harness this at Suzuki, is by promoting our programs through videos like the one above, and rallying everyone to the environmental cause each September.

So for me, the learning has been to put extra effort into sharing success stories, and letting the success of environmental initiatives belong to everyone.  It feels good to do good work, and your staff may just decide they want to keep on making a difference.

Partnerships.  I’ve been working closely with the City, the conservation authority and several environmental groups in the area.  Sometimes, it feels like it might be faster to do things myself.  However, very often these partnerships yield additional ideas, help, guest speakers and money that improve our projects tremendously.  Not only that, but projects with community partners are easier to get approved and are more attractive when applying for grant money.

If you aren’t an expert in what plants go where or what is native to your watershed, partnerships with local environmental organizations are absolutely key to maximize the benefit of your good intentions and hard work.

Persistence.  The first time I tried to do a 100+ tree planting, I ended up spending over 4 months in a debate as we sought approval for the project.  I had the support of my administration, but other interested parties were less convinced.  It took a lot of persistence to continue pressing my case to people well above my pay grade.  In the end, we accommodated their real concerns, alleviated any unwarranted fears, cleared up any miscommunications and we proceeded to create an amazing planting.  That planting day is one that many at my past alternative school will always remember.

I’ve come to understand since that time that few things require more persistence than an environmental project needing approvals.  Sometimes it’s tempting to just go it alone and risk the consequences.  However, to the extent that I’ve been successful as an environmental education leader, it’s often been by applying for approvals and anticipating the needs and concerns of other interested parties.  Looking at the custodian, facilities manager, school board etc. as a potential barrier, we may get stuck.  But thinking about how to do your important environmental work in a way that makes life better and addresses the needs of these parties can really yield results and open more doors in the future.  It requires knowing what they want, what about your work could make their job easier or harder.  It also requires making sure that they feel valued and are listened to.  For example, a group of trees makes for more difficult lawn mowing – you may have to fight your custodian.  That rarely ends well. However, a group of trees connected by a mulched bed means less mowing and likely a supportive ally.  Hang in there, win some allies and you’ll soon be doing the important work you’ve been craving and building support for your next project along the way.

It’s been a great journey: both fun and highly rewarding knowing that I’m making a difference.  However, as I think beyond the group of schools I support, I sometimes worry when I hear people talk about how difficult it can be to green their school yard or do other environmental work.  I’ve found that with a team, some persistence and a vision, anything is possible!

Got any other secrets to environmental success in schools?  I’d love to hear them!