Pollinator gardens blossom at three schools

Master gardener Jeff Mellin admits he had a dual purpose when he volunteered to oversee the construction of butterfly and pollinator gardens on the grounds of three Fayette County elementary schools last year. He was inspired not just by the idea of planting flowers that draw bees and butterflies; he also hoped the projects might inspire youngsters to get into gardening – especially in an era when people are spending more time at work and in front of electronic screens than in their yards.

“The more interested the children are, and the more fun they see in it, the more it will want them to do the same in their own backyards,” Mellin said.

The Tyrone resident got the idea for pollinator gardens two years ago after taking a course sponsored by Monarch Watch, a national network of students, teachers and volunteers who track the migration pattrns of Monarch butterflies. A volunteer crew of master gardeners set up shop in an empty green house owned by Fayette’s board of education and started nursing seedlings that wound up in gardens at three schools, a few recreation centers and several strategic spots around the county. By the end of the first year, 13 pollinator gardens had been established.

“The ones at Inman, Spring Hill and Oak Grove elementary had so much involvement with teachers, principals and students that we decided this year to add more schools,” Mellin said. “In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been talking with the principals and teachers, and looking at the sites to see what areas are conducive.”

The roughly 15-by-30-foot gardens with about 19 varieties of plants got underway in the schools last spring, and during the summer, the master gardeners kept them growing. “Now, about a third of what we planted is in bloom, so the students see some gratification around their work,” Mellin said.

And it turns out they’re getting more than just the rewards of seeing something they planted grow. Tess Keller, a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) teacher at Inman Elementary in Fayetteville, said the gardens have opened the door to all sorts of educational connections.

“Life cycles, eco systems, plant adaptations, rocks and soil, weather – it’s a long list,” Keller said. “The kids can even write outside and be inspired. The garden’s been a catalyst to understand cause and effect, systems, changes in surroundings and scale. Some of our teachers have used it to talk about concepts like the Fibonacci rules. And of course, they’re also learning about the importance of bees and other pollinators.”

The idea of having a garden at the school at first seemed a bit daunting, added Keller.

“Yes, I was kind of hesitant – it’s a big undertaking,” she said. “But the size of our garden is perfect. And it really makes the children realize what they can do, that something they helped with makes a big change. You should see how excited they get when we go out and see butterflies everywhere. Even I sound like an 8-year-old; I get excited to see it really works.”

Mellin is now planning to add gardens to six more elementary schools. Students will get the chance to pitch in on the project, and they’ll get tiny plants to take home. “I hope they go home and ask mommy and daddy to put it in their backyards,” Mellin said. “They can have something at home just like at school.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.