Canterbury School students get their green on in native garden

In one of Disney's newest licensing agreements, garden centers will sell colorful container plants featuring Winnie the Pooh and friends. Sounds like marketing genius, and certainly encouraging the next generation of gardeners is always worthwhile.

But with environmental concerns about pesticide use, water shortages, depletion of pollinators and ground water runoff into Tampa Bay, shouldn't more be done to prepare children to become good stewards of the earth?

That's the thinking at Canterbury School of Florida in St. Petersburg, where middle school and high school students have created and maintained an 8,000-square-foot Florida native garden that's receiving accolades and more than $20,000 in funding from local and state organizations. The eco-minded youngsters researched, planned and wrote some of the grant proposals.

The model garden features more than 35 species of native plants, a solar-powered freshwater pond and water-conserving drip irrigation. But much more is coming thanks to a recent $4,250 grant from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to teach students about local water quality, water conservation and sustainability.

"Our long-term goal is to create a complete outdoor classroom. We want the kids to feel like it is their space," explains science teacher Jenna Cummings, who oversees the garden at the school's campus, near a creek that feeds into Tampa Bay and a mangrove habitat.

The grant will fund an organic vegetable garden, rain barrels, a solar still to desalinate nearby brackish water for use in the garden and an aquaculture fish farm.

Under the direction of Cummings and marine studies director Dan Otis, students began work on the native garden two years ago by removing and smothering turfgrass with thick layers of newspaper and mulch. They studied native plants in the classroom before placing them throughout the garden, which is a haven for wildlife including butterflies, bees, birds and marsh rabbits. Students enjoy a bird's-eye view of the wild visitors from classrooms that overlook the expansive garden.

Just beyond the garden is the creek bed where students planted saltmarsh grass to help stabilize the shoreline, filter stormwater runoff and provide a wildlife habitat. Cummings says her students will create a nursery to propagate the grasses and transplant them at other needy sites throughout Tampa Bay.

"When Dan and I collaborated on the effort, we decided if we were going to do it, we were going to do it big," says Cummings, who received her advanced science degree from the University of South Florida. But that required teamwork from students, she says.

Last week the school received an award for environmental excellence from St. Petersburg's City Beautiful Commission, which has honored outstanding landscapes since 1961. Last year the Tampa Bay Estuary Program honored Canterbury for having the area's best habitat restoration project.

Like most gardens, Canterbury's "is still a work in progress," says Cummings. But with dozens of students planting, weeding, mulching, conducting soil and water sample tests and helping to teach about environmental stewardship, this project is just as much about the journey as it is the destination.

Yvonne Swanson is a St. Petersburg writer and master gardener. Contact her at yvonnesgarden@gmail.com

Canterbury School students get their green on in native garden 10/17/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 5:33pm]

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