Native Plant Garden at John Witherspoon Middle School–Plant Communities and Human Communities Come Together

My school, the John Witherspoon Middle School (JW), has a Memorial Garden tucked into a wonderful small niche in the front of the school.  It is a sort of “secret garden,” bounded on one side by a school corridor with a wall of windows.  This allows humans a view inside without needing to encroach on the garden’s privacy.  This makes it a perfect place to try to create a functional—and visible–ecosystem where plants will feed insects and other animals, where insects will pollinate plants and raise young, where some insects will become food for birds, and where birds and other animals will find shelter, food and water.

We had plenty of native plants–I still had part of a donation to the Princeton Schools from Pinelands Nursery, arranged through sponsorship from the Mercer County Soil Conservation District.  Mark Eastburn, the Science Teacher from the Riverside School, had native plants through grant funding from the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB).  Mark’s plants included some carnivorous (insect eating) plants, specifically Venus fly traps, sundews, and pitcher plants.

The garden already had some traditional decorative landscape shrubs, including azaleas, crape myrtle and those green bushes that prune so well into geometric shapes but whose names I never learn.  We decided to retain the existing shrubs as a layer in a multi-layer landscape.  Under and around the shrubs we would add the herbaceous native plants including sedges, monarda, goldenrod, columbines, and many others to provide shelter to flowers and animals as well as soil health promoting ground cover.

The whole project was a team effort not only by Mark and myself, but of the whole Princeton school community.  A lot of the effort was enthusiastically provided by students from Nyrie Janho’s Food Science and Wellness Classes, and by the school’s two Robotics Club teams, the JW Hornets and the Techno Tigers.  Students helped clear the English ivy and other invasive weeds that were overrunning the garden.  Mr. Eastburn and his students sunk five tubs into the ground for the carnivorous plants; the tubs will be watered only by rain water, which will help the plants retain the moisture they require to thrive.

Both of the Robotics Club teams are preparing for a competition that requires them to not only build Lego robots but to plan and carry out a community service program.  The Techno Tigers, whose project involves encouraging birds to take up residence at JW, raised funds for a bird house and bird bath.  The JW Hornets are working on a project to help bees, which are increasingly endangered in the modern American landscape, and will be adding elements to the garden for this purpose.

Compost and mulch were supplied by Princeton Public Schools Grounds Foreman Tony Diaforl and his crew from the ecological facility that Princeton shares with Lawrence Township.  We applied the compost as an initial top dressing to supply organic matter and some nutrients from the surface down, just as it happens in natural systems.  The top dressing of compost will work with the mulch to discourage weed seeds from growing by denying them the sunlight that they require to germinate. We mixed the donated mulch with leaves collected from the school lawns for the second layer over the compost.  This combined mulch layer will provide not only protection for the soil, reducing oxidation of carbon and soil nutrients, but cover for small critters including insects.

John Witherspoon Middle School Teacher Kelly Riely has arranged for some of the members of her Do Something Club to water the new native plants once a week until it gets colder.


The project could not have been done without the support of Princeton Public School District personnel, including Science Supervisor Edward Cohen and John Witherspoon Middle School Principal Jason Burr.

The garden is still very much a work in progress, as we wait to see both how well our new introduced communities of plants and the ones already there function together.  In the spring, we will add additional plants to fill any holes and to replace any plants that don’t make it.  We will continue to recruit members of the JW and the larger Princeton communities to help with maintenance as a form of stewarding some of the ground that stewards us.



A Garden is a Place We Are Invited Into

By:  Priscilla Hayes

I have the great privilege of being a part-time garden educator for two K-5 schools in Princeton, New Jersey, a town that has had a commitment to garden education for over a decade.  Generally, I am rushing around one of our school gardens either prepping a garden bed for a class that is coming out in 15 minutes or using a few spare minutes to weed and mulch.  But, I had a few minutes to just sit in the Community Park School “Edible Garden” one beautiful day this fall.  I had set up for a weekend garden event and was just waiting for people to arrive.  On a bench in our classroom/seating area, I enjoyed the rare opportunity to slow myself down.

For all my protestations about people just needing to get outside and observe more, and my tossing about of the phrase “nature deficit disorder,” I was rather shocked to find the garden full of critters—birds, bees, butterflies and more, all acting as though I weren’t there.

Only a few feet away from me, a quite bold squirrel flung him or herself off a tree branch onto one of our tall and lovely corn stalks, grabbed tight, and waited as his/her weight bent the stalk down to the ground.

I’m pretty sure that’s when I called out, “hey you, squirrel!”  It did occur to me, irrationally, that we needed a better name than just “squirrel” for our little friend, but in an instant, I had discovered who was stealing the corn from our corn patch.  I wasn’t going to let our new friend steal another ear of corn, at least while I was sitting there!

True confessions:  having saved an ear of corn, I somehow magically believed the squirrel (or squirrels) would never steal every one.  But our squirrel did just that, scattering empty husks around the Edible Garden.

I had been planning to bring the fourth grade classes out to pick our lovely Indian corn, from seed donated by my friend Zane.  But, having been reminded that a garden is not another human room, but a place where we are invited to share space with lovely living things, I created new lessons to let the kids experience the same reminder.

I asked each fourth grader to solve the mystery of the corn theft.  Each student had to find clues to the thief’s identity, and use them to come up with a conclusion.

I also created a game of “critter bingo” to ask the kids to see who else besides our corn thief was sharing the garden with us.  Students didn’t actually need to see a critter, but had to come up with clues that suggested that critter had been there.  From the kids, I learned where every hole in our fence was, and the location of some probable rabbit or vole holes.  We had a great discussion, considering seriously even the possibility that deer might have been here (in spite of our very tall deer fence).  There are probably still some kids who believe the deer steal in by dark of night.

In spite of my many years of being a gardener, and in spite of my burning desire to get kids outside more to experience nature, it took observing the squirrel to remind me that the critters and the plants are much more full-time residents of the garden ecosystem than we humans are.  We humans count mainly as visitors.  The critters and plants freely invite us in to spend some time in a place that is shaped by humans, yes, but even more by non-humans—from the living soil, which contains more organisms per square inch than any other segment of earth—on up through the wonderful shading trees.

I am indoors as I write this, dreaming my way into the lovely private CP Edible Garden at a time when the ground is frozen.  Me and the kids are really going to pay attention to the garden’s full-time residents this year, looking at the underside of leaves for insects, marveling at the small black voles that just love to hide under a flat of parsley plants and slowing down enough to see the birds.  Of course, we also have to come up with our name for the squirrel, one that will describe what he/she teaches us.

This is not a squirrel--it is a giant leopard moth larva that appeared equally magically in our garden.
This is not a squirrel–it is a giant leopard moth larva that appeared equally magically in our garden.