Portland students restore urban landscape with help from Audubon

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PORTLAND — Maine Audubon hopes to encourage individuals and community groups to engage in the restoration of habitat for native plants and wildlife, especially in the state’s more urban landscapes.

So the organization, through its Bringing Nature Home initiative, partnered with King Middle School in a months-long learning expedition that culminated last week with students and staff from Maine Audubon and the city’s Park Department planting a variety of native species in the school garden and at Deering Oaks Park.

The plants will help native and migratory bird species, particularly by attracting insects, according to Eric Topper, education director at Falmouth-based Maine Audubon.

“The trees and shrubs (planted last week) produce flowers and fruit, and the wildflowers attract insects and yield seeds for birds to eat,” Topper said. “The focus on native species of plants means (they) will also host caterpillars, which is one of the primary benefits to birds and other wildlife.”

Jeff Tarling, the city arborist, was also on hand for the planting session and said his department got involved because it’s “important to use real-life examples of (improving) our environment in our local education programs.”

But, he added, it’s not just students who should learn about native plant species and their benefits.

“Everyone should look at native plants when considering home landscape projects,” Tarling said. “Native plants are the most adaptive and provide natural habitat and food sources for wildlife, along with pollination for bees.”

“In this case,” he said, “the students are leading the way for all of us. Kudos to King Middle School for caring about our environment.”

The species ranged from tupelo and juniper trees to blueberry, huckleberry and winterberry bushes to little bluestem grasses, Tarling said.

The plants were all donated by local nurseries and “are all adaptive to our environment,” he said.

Topper said the Bringing Nature Home program at Maine Audubon began three years ago with funding provided by Jim and Ann Hancock of Scarborough and is based on the bestselling book of the same title.

Specifically, at King Middle, the teachers saw “Bringing Nature Home as (providing) rich content around which students could (also) apply math, science, writing, history and art (concepts) to one deep unit of study,” Topper said.

Overall, he said, the goal with Bringing Nature Home is to “improve habitat for birds and other wildlife in the landscapes around us, while also impelling people to take direct conservation action themselves.”

“When people work together to improve the wildlife habitat around them or see students doing it, it also helps connect them to larger conservation projects” and ideals, Topper said.

He said for the planting project at King Middle, “(We were) entirely focused on restoring local wildlife food webs, and the students each chose plants based on their direct benefit to the birds assigned to them.”

In addition to the plants, Topper said, “we even added large logs, which will attract ants and beetles as they decompose.”

With the school-based project, he said, “we hope students will gain an increased sense of place and purpose.”

“We know that most kids don’t spend enough time exploring the nature around them anymore,” Topper said. “Helping kids experience and understand the plants, animals and (natural) processes around them (gives them something) they can share and build upon.”

In terms of getting a wider audience for its Bringing Nature Home program, Topper said Maine Audubon hopes “people will see these students as agents of positive change and that this will inspire them to follow their lead.”

In addition, he said, “We also hope that these showcase demonstration planting projects throughout the city will inform and motivate people to reconsider the choices we all can make within our own gardens and yards.”

“Together, Maine Audubon and the city of Portland can showcase how these efforts engage communities, beautify open spaces, reduce maintenance costs and increase biodiversity,” Topper said. “There are authentic, positive and rewarding actions that we all can and should take.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Students at King Middle School in Portland spent part of the day Oct. 5 planting native species in the school garden and the adjacent Deering Oaks Park to benefit birds and other wildlife.