Creating a School Pocket Prairie
By Della Barbato, NPAT Director of Education
The seeds of an idea
This spring, NPAT is collaborating with the Texas Master Naturalists Gulf Coast chapter to install another school pocket prairie. It will be at Lantrip Elementary School, an Environmental Science magnet school in Houston. Irmi Willcockson, President of the chapter, approached me while volunteering at our recent education fundraiser. She asked if we could collaborate on a student project in which the chapter members could serve and gain volunteer hours. I responded with “The pocket prairie we are installing at Parker Elementary is a really valuable education tool. Would the chapter like to sponsor a school pocket prairie?” A donation soon followed for materials and my time, and we were off.
Since the early settlers came to Texas, our Coastal Prairies have been essential to local cattle ranchers. These are the roots of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Perfect, since spring is rodeo time. A school pocket prairie can become a learning area and be used as science, history and art classrooms. Students will use iNaturalist to document the pollinators and other wildlife that the prairie will attract. Pocket prairies serve as a valuable food source for our native pollinators, especially in urban areas. Native prairies mitigate floodwaters and are more economical than lawns, using less fertilizer and water.
A school pocket prairie offers a hands-on, real-world outdoor classroom for students! It greatly improves educational value for children as a compliment to indoor classroom instruction. It is the ideal place to learn about biology, environmental science, agronomy and more! Art and photography students will have a source for inspiration, just outside the classroom door! Texas history, ecology, insect study and adaptation, soil science, and art are just a few of the ways that teachers on campus can utilize a pocket prairie.
Finding the spot
Irmi and I set about finding a school. I reached out to my teacher contacts stating that to qualify, the principal of the school must be on board with the project, that there is an existing PTO, and there is a water source near the proposed area. It is imperative that the principal is on board with the location, installation, maintenance and school involvement in a school pocket prairie project for the foreseeable future. It also helps to get the PTO involved, as they are a good resource for volunteers. From the three schools that we visited, Lantrip Elementary was the clear choice.
We then met with Amber Akhtar, the school’s Magnet Coordinator and came up with a plan. This January, we spent a morning at the school presenting our program to the teachers, ancillary coordinators and various administrators. We later went back to the school to present the program to more than 220 students and 15 teachers. They sat on the gym floor as we gave a Power Point presentation, answered their questions and watched them get excited about their coming pocket prairie. On their way out of the gym, the students were able to interact with the prairie learning trunk and to feel the real skunk pelt. Between programs, Amber, Irmi and I decided on the exact pocket prairie location.
Setting up a plan
The Lantrip pocket prairie will be a U shape so that two or more classes can study the prairie at one time. The three sections of the bed will be twenty feet long and four feet wide so those little student arms can reach all parts of the prairie. This also means that no pathways need to be built, saving money on materials. Some plants will be started from seed and some from transplants.
In the next two months we will have a professional install the metal edging and to prepare the ground. Students will be as involved as possible in the landscape construction and design to establish ownership of their pocket prairie, including naming it. A Prairie Naming Contest at Lantrip is allowing each student to submit a vote for the name. There will be signage on the pocket prairie during the entire procedure and after so that students, teachers and parents are educated on what is happening at this spot. The first sign is a temporary one that states “New Homes are Coming Soon.” A QR code on the sign links to a website explaining the importance and process of the prairie.
The grasses will turn brown in the winter. Larger signs will be placed both inside the fence and facing the sidewalk outside the fence so that people understand what the prairie is, take some ownership in it and will support it even when it doesn’t look as pretty in the winter.
People and the prairie
Community involvement in a pocket prairie is critical. It can’t just happen with the students. The prairie offers a wonderful opportunity for parents and neighbors to talk about native plants and pollinators, and possibly make a change in their own yards. On a Family Workday set for Saturday March 4, we will place cardboard on top of the St. Augustine grass inside the edging (thank goodness it is not Bermuda grass!) and spread the soil on top. The children can lay sand around the outside of the edging while their parents install the sandstone border, which formalizes the space. Then we wait for the grass to die. After that, the fifth graders will install irrigation. Second graders will sow and ‘stomp’ seeds in. And the third and fourth graders will transplant some native plants.
Pocket prairies are not just for children–adults and communities benefit as well. Native grasses and wildflowers conserve water during droughts and help mitigate flooding. Prairie roots can absorb fourteen times more rain water than a typical lawn. Houston has become extremely flood prone and prairies serve as the natural sponges needed for flood resiliency. Pocket prairies are among the tools being used to manage future flooding. High-quality prairie habitat can hold up to nine inches of rainwater during a storm, reducing the likelihood of catastrophic floods. And, being in a Houston neighborhood that has experienced significant flooding events over the last few years, we will talk a lot about the benefits of native grasses.
Food for insects
Many landscape plants are from other continents, and have no wildlife value. Insects of this area have adapted to our native plants over thousands of years. Most plants produce a toxin as a survival mechanism to keep insects, reptiles and mammals from eating them. Native insect species have adapted to those toxins, and therefore need that plant in order to complete its life cycle. Monarch butterfly larvae feeding on milkweed plants is a well-known example. In addition, caterpillars are an important food source for our nesting and migrating birds. With their school pocket prairie, students can observe, collect and discuss the bugs in their prairie. And they can help raise awareness within the community about the benefits of our native plants and pollinators.
Teacher Information Exchange
The importance of pocket prairies in schools has now been supported by curriculum changes to teach prairie ecology and TEKS lessons. The ‘Pocket Prairie Teachers’ Facebook page, with more than 670 members, is an incredible resource for teachers with campus pocket prairies or plans to establish new pocket prairies. Educators can share information about what they are working on and share resources, seeds, plants and photos of their school projects. Some teachers give away plants and seeds here. You can also request your pocket prairie needs and find help. It’s a place to ask questions and get great advice from experienced prairie folk or experts in the field.