Native landscaping springs education into full bloom

A faint buzz fills the spring air in the Carmel Middle School bee garden. A light breeze stirs the California poppies, and the fall of footsteps startles an alligator lizard in the black sage.

Everything seems alive: sweat bees pollinating, blue-bellies sunning themselves, and scrub-jays chirping in the willows. This is an everyday scene in Carmel Unified School District, but it is one rarely seen in most other schools.

Where did this “green campus” mentality come from, and why should the district continue to strive for it?

Some 20 years ago, former science teacher Craig Hohenberger received funding to create a wildlife habitat on property, which was then a Christmas tree lot, adjacent to CMS. Before this “Habitat”—more formally the Hilton Bialek Habitat—was completed in the early 2000s, the campus was very sparse in terms of wildlife and vegetation.

“I remember our first sticky-monkey [flower] blooming. It was a big deal,” says Pat Stadille, CMS science teacher and avid user of the Habitat in classes like Eco-Literacy and Nature Studies. “Now they’re all over the joint.”

Where weedy patches of ivy and juniper once dominated, islands of native plants bloom today. And thanks to the efforts of eighth grade science classes, many thriving wildlife microhabitats—supporting countless native bees, butterflies, mammals, reptiles and birds—now grace parking lots, hillsides, stairs and walkways around campus.

Landscaping

Student-planted hummingbird sage adorns the well-used stairway outside the CMS gym.

Although the high school has less student involvement in landscaping, native plants are still a priority at CHS, according to maintenance department operations manager Dan Paul.

“We [work] with a local designer to select natives and drought-tolerant species,” Paul notes, “[and have] installed smart irrigation controllers and drip irrigation where appropriate.”

Since native California flora evolved in low-water environments, the more CUSD plants, the better. And with CHS’ recent construction projects, opportunities to do so are increasingly springing up.

“The Environmental Club was very vocal that they wanted to be part of the landscaping process,” says CHS science teacher and Environmental Club advisor Jason Maas-Baldwin. “Our main input was, ‘Please plant drought-tolerant natives,’ and, for the most part, that’s what you see out here,” he adds, gesturing to the science wing.

But sometimes a balance is hard to achieve: After ceanothus bushes behind the CHS cafeteria and by the front of the school had grown too woody-looking and had become a haven for mice, many were recently removed.

Unfortunately, this represents not only an aesthetic loss, but a habitat loss for ceanothus silk moth caterpillars, which eventually metamorphose into stunning brown moths, that depend on ceanothus for food and as cocoon sites. Earlier this year, a dozen or so silk moth caterpillars and cocoons were found on campus by science teacher Kevin Buran.

Buran has, for the last two years, raised silk moth caterpillars in a terrarium in order to educate his students about life’s processes of change. The ceanothus loss is felt, but Paul assures that the removed areas will be replanted.

This promises much for both the silk moths and outdoor education.

If CHS’ mission is to prepare young adults for the real world—a world of very real environmental issues—it seems only logical to continue connecting students to their local ecosystems and creating a conscience of coexistence with nature, which can be easily accomplished through native landscaping.

So why should stewardship end in middle school? For although CHS may not have a Habitat of its own, it does have many cement-surrounded islands with planting potential, as well as what is commonly called the “chill hill.”

After plans to build a classroom on “chill hill” were discarded, this strip of land east of the pool and woodshop has remained undeveloped, used by Maas-Baldwin in his AP Environmental Science classes for surveying birds and plants and for teaching ecological succession.

Replete with several habitats, including a seasonal stream, the chill hill has what, according to Stadille, the Habitat initially lacked: structure. Instead of starting from scratch, a restoration project there would already have a complex ecosystem—with, for example, up to five different species of salamanders—for foundation.

The only obstacle is early-on irrigation of any natives planted, as there is no piping, and hauling water is a big commitment.

“It would just require a pretty extraordinary effort,” Maas-Baldwin says.

But considering how far this district has come, one more extraordinary effort may not that much to ask.
-Michael Montgomery