National Wildlife Refuge System

Nature in the City: The Garden that Longstreth Built

Two girls helping at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge
Pollinator Garden
Credit: Frank Doyle
Longstreth Elementary School teacher Chuck Lafferty wanted to bring nature into the lives of students in his inner-city Philadelphia school. So he made John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum a staple of his grade school curriculum.

Central to Lafferty's effort is a refuge pollinator garden, which his kindergarten students started in 2011 with $122 they collected in pennies. The garden, which Longstreth students still help maintain, grew out of an earlier effort in which Lafferty and his students turned a vacant schoolyard lot into wildlife habitat.

Today, the refuge garden is not just a source of school and community pride. It's a place of vivid colors and scents, where butterflies, bees and birds are rarely out of sight. What's more: Working in the garden seems to calm kids with behavior issues, say Lafferty and others. The experience particularly appeals to kids who learn more effectively by touch and sight.

The pollinator garden is "a shining example of what is possible when a group of dedicated and devoted people get together," says Lafferty. Refuge manager Gary Stolz agrees. Everyone benefits, he says, when refuges join efforts with "teachers who have the spark" and other dedicated partners.

In 2010 a grant to the refuge Friends group provided funds for Longstreth Elementary students to buy more than 2,000 native plants. Students tended these in planting beds at their school. Then, starting in February 2011, they cleared the pollinator garden plot at the refuge, saving native plants for the school's Native Plant Nursery. Everything else went into a compost pile.

Next, they installed raised beds to hold the composted soil. Parents, volunteers, Friends and refuge staff did their share, but kindergarteners proudly wielded their own shovels and rakes. In spring, children formed a line to pass buckets of composted soil from hand to hand to the raised planting beds.

How Does My Garden Grow?
Later, the students and their families helped transplant native plants to the new pollinator garden. "With each visit, students became more eager to see how the garden was doing, how their plants looked and what pollinators were visiting the garden," said John Heinz Refuge ranger Mariana Bergerson.

Kindergarteners were accompanied on each trip by a class of sixth graders, usually paired one-on-one as buddies. Sixth graders produced a brochure on the benefits of using native plants in home gardening. They were also able to meet a school requirement to complete a 20-hour service learning project.

In 2011 the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society honored the refuge and its pollinator garden with a Community Greening Award.

The garden experience help Longstreth Elementary meet Pennsylvania statewide standards for outdoor education.

Others project partners have included the Refuge Friends organization, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Penn State University Master Gardeners and Project Budburst.

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Last updated: February 27, 2015