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October 24, 2020
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Students learn hands-on with Habitat Garden

  • A honey bee about to land on a flower in the University Elementary Habitat Garden. Photo by Tracy Si

By: Stephanie Derammelaere
July 10, 2020

University Elementary at La Fiesta in Rohnert Park is sporting a brand-new habitat garden, over a year in the making. While it is not yet totally complete, it is already attracting all kinds of critters, from reptiles, to birds, to insects, which was the garden’s primary focus in order to give students unique hands-on learning opportunities.

“The big focus of the garden program at the school is finding hands-on projects,” says Sandra Knoy, the Garden Teacher for University Elementary. “University Elementary is very much a project-based-learning focused school. So it’s finding practical applications of math, science, art and humanities – you can do all of that in the garden. There will be weeks where we do very science-based lessons, but sometimes there will be a bunch of math problems I’ll have the kids figure out.”

A little over a year ago, Sandra Knoy and then garden teacher Alisa Norstrom attended a class through the School Garden Network, a local Sebastopol-based organization that provides curriculum, resources, grants and support for school garden programs. The two decided that starting a habitat garden would be an asset to the school. University Elementary already has a food garden with fruits and vegetables, but this additional 1,200 square foot garden would be space specifically for creating habitats for a variety of Sonoma County wildlife. The students were very involved in the planning and organization of the garden, including completing a site survey where they mapped out the available space, estimated dimensions, evaluated existing ground cover, slope, high and low spots, and drainage, and determined soil pH using a soil test kit. They also determined what kinds of wildlife they wanted to attract and what plants and other habitat structures would best ensure drawing in their selections.

“Some of the lessons we did with the children included what local animals need habitats, and what it means to provide a habitat for an animal (that they need food, shelter, and water),” says Knoy. “Each class adopted one or two animals to learn about. It’s been a long process of working on it periodically with the students and learning about the animals and figuring out ‘maybe we don’t want to do that animal, because it eats this other one!’ It turns out dragonflies eat hummingbirds, so we thought, ‘maybe we won’t target the dragonflies!’”

The funding for the garden came from a School Garden Network grant and a committee of teachers and devoted parents went into action to make the dream a reality. The children first started planting and developing a rock wall and brush pile in May of 2019 and continued throughout the following 2019/2020 school year. Unfortunately, the plan to complete most of the planting in the garden after returning from spring break did not happen due to the shelter-in-place orders, but eight school families participated in a social distance planting day this past May. At this point, the garden is fifty percent completed. 

With the uncertainty of what the fall semester will look like, Knoy is holding off continuing to add plants to the garden because, ideally, she would like the students to be involved in that process when they return to school. If that cannot take place due to social distancing, there will most likely be additional social distance planting days in the fall for families. If students cannot be there in person, Knoy will continue sending weekly update videos to students, as she did at the end of the spring semester, keeping them informed on new developments happening in the garden.

“Since we’ve provided habitats for a variety of animals, the students are really looking forward to having the opportunity to observe those animals and explore their development,” says Knoy. “For example, a couple of the butterflies we focused on were the Pipevine Swallowtail and the Monarch, so hopefully we will attract those butterflies and be able to watch their life cycle. We’ve already seen some lizards and just in the past few weeks, a gopher snake.”

Knoy hopes to be able to secure more funding in order to purchase an owl box kit to help keep their gopher population in check. Anyone interested in donating funds or materials to build an owl box is encouraged to email Sandra Knoy at gardenedsandra@gmail.com.