Going native: North students give courtyard an environmental makeover

VOLUNTEERS have installed more than 300 plants at a Columbus North High School courtyard as part of an environmental project.

A number of individuals and organizations — including a “small army” of student volunteers — have been involved in turning a neglected outdoor space into a native plant garden that now boasts over 3,640 square feet of new planting beds and 370 new native plants consisting of 17 different species, said economics teacher and Environmental Club sponsor Natalie Perry.

Planting took place on April 30. The project’s genesis came about in the summer of 2021, when North’s environmental club helped install an Exhibit Columbus work — “To Middle Species, With Love” — at Mill Race Park.

“As we were out there working, we started talking about how it was really cool to be out in nature and just kind of beautifying the space,” said Perry. “There was nothing there. And I myself am an avid gardener and had a career in horticulture before I became a teacher.”

She mentioned to her students that the high school had a courtyard with a winding sidewalk that not a lot of kids knew about. The area was located in the center of the school, but the doors to it were always locked.

Her students, after hearing this, felt it would be a good idea to turn the courtyard into a space for students to relax during lunch or use to pass from one class to another. The club began seeking administrative approval for the project in the fall. Initial work took place during fall break, with a few student and adult volunteers donating about 60 hours to removing weeds and trash from the neglected garden space.

During spring break, volunteers worked on cutting out sod, removing and remaking plant beds, adding mulch, removing old rock pathways and installing wood round stepping stones that had been donated. On April 30, about a dozen volunteers planted more than 340 plants.

Perry has enjoyed seeing students get involved with the project. Environmental Club members were the primary group working on it, but other kids have helped out as well.

“The idea behind the garden makeover is that we have a community space that everyone in the school can enjoy, not just environmental club,” she said. “So this would be something that the whole student body could appreciate and enjoy. And I think that the mix of students that I have come out and help us definitely supports the idea that they all want a space where they can feel some ownership and some pride in what they’ve accomplished.”

North’s Art Club is also hoping to get involved with the garden by adding an artistic element of some kind. Architecture Club and a member of Conservation Club have also been involved in brainstorming ideas for the space.

“We’ve actually met with Anne Surak from the Exhibit Columbus, and they brought some people in from the Bittertang Farm in Chicago and kind of talked about creative spaces,” said Perry.

They’re waiting on adding artistic elements until the garden begins to grow, but some possibilities might include a ceramic water catcher for birds and painting bird boxes.

Other people who have contributed to or supported the project include C4 Architecture and Construction Instructor Darin Johnson, the local Sierra Club, Native Plants Unlimited, school principals, BCSC Director of Operations Brett Boezeman, pollinator parks supporters and custodial staff.

“The most important group that we’ve worked with is the Bulldog Alumni Association,” said Perry. “They’re the ones who gave us a grant for the plants that we purchased. And without that grant, then we wouldn’t have had nearly the impact in that space that we were able to pull off.”

One such impact is that the project may be registered as part of Columbus’s Bee City USA native garden count.

The city became the first Indiana affiliate of Bee City USA in September of 2021. Bee City USA is an initiative of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and is aimed at getting communities to preserve pollinators — and native species of bees in particular — by providing habitats with plenty of native plants, nest sites and protection from pesticides.

“I am definitely on board with the native plant movement,” said Perry. “The environmental and the ecological aspect of it — you just can’t beat the benefits that you have with your native plants.”

She said that native species are “adapted to our area,” so they respond quickly after being planted. They’re also relatively low maintenance and good for soil and drainage. Native species also filter out impurities before they reach groundwater — and, of course, attract pollinators.

“I’ve gardened for a lot of years,” said Perry. “And I started my native plant garden, and I have seen more pollinators than I have for years just in the small garden that I’ve started at my house.”

The courtyard will require some ongoing maintenance such as weeding, thinning and pruning, she said. She also hopes to start work sessions this fall that could count toward students’ service learning hours, which are a graduation requirement.

By August, many of the plants will be at a “mature height.”

“It is really going to be a phenomenal sight,” said Perry. “Of course, new gardens, especially native, you tend to get very small starts. So when you first see the install, you kind of wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into, because the plants are so tiny. But it’s amazing to watch how quickly they grow.”