Pupils absorb lessons in garden

Published May 21, 2007

NEW PORT RICHEY - The small sprigs of cassia, milkweed and beauty berry might not look like much, weeds even to the untrained eye.

After all, the more exotic blooms prevalent in Florida can be much more impressive even if they require a daily dousing. But for those who think that water is likely to become more precious than gold, those simple native, low-maintenance plants are a worthy investment.

Mittye P. Locke Elementary is the new home for 150 native flowers, shrubs and trees that were planted recently, mostly by small hands. Some 500 students took part in the water conservation landscape project courtesy of their art teacher, Linda Blake, and a $500 Splash Mini-Grant from the Southwest Florida Management District.

Lock Elementary was one of five Pasco schools and 100 projects to obtain grants totaling $230,000 that promote education about water conservation during the 2006-07 school year.

"It looks a little wild," Blake said as she gave a tour of the small gardens that have sprouted up around the campus and throughout two outdoor classrooms. "But that's pretty much what we want."

Blake said she has had her eye on the outdoor classroom that greets visitors at the front entrance of Locke Elementary ever since she started teaching there a couple of years ago. It would be a great place to conduct lessons, Blake thought, or collect native flowers that could be pressed and pasted onto recycled paper.

As art teacher, she had access to hundreds of students on a daily basis. She figured those students could benefit from learning the value of water conservation while digging in the dirt to plant species that would provide shade, food and a home for birds and other wildlife. The students also participated in a school-wide contest to draw posters depicting the aquifer.

Among them, 8-year-old Leia Rice knows that the salvia she helped plant outside her portable classroom will attract pollinating butterflies and bees. And classmate Hubert Maddox, 8, knows that the milkweed that has "white fluffy stuff coming up" will provide food for monarch butterfly larvae.

Even better, once established, those plants won't need a lot of care or water.

"One of the problems - especially with this drought - is people watering their lawns and gardens all the time," said Blake. "We want to plant the seeds about conserving water in their little brains now."

That's a great boon as far as Nancy Desmond is concerned. Desmond, who manages Environmental Equities, a native plant nursery in Hudson, helped Blake select the ideal plants for the Locke landscape. She has been sharing her knowledge about native species with schools, garden clubs and homeowners for about 10 years now.

"Our children and the plants being put in are our legacy," she said. "If they get interested now they will help conserve water. ... If we teach them now, it becomes a part of their daily life. They will learn why we need plants, why we need trees. It's not to just put something pretty in our yard. It's for clean air. It's for wildlife."

And in the years to come, said Blake, these students will be able to see the fruits of their labor.

For example, the elm trees planted outside the kindergarten classrooms will grow tall enough to shade the buildings, cutting down on air conditioning costs.

"Some of these trees will grow to be 60 feet tall," said Blake. "And these kids will always be able to come back and see what they've done."

Michele Miller can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6251 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505. Her e-mail is miller@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

About the grants

For information on grants from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, go to www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/education/minigrants/projectview. For information on Environmental Equities, call Nancy Desmond at (727) 992-8905.