Oh, For the Love of Butterflies (and Children)!

The Bayscape Garden at Pot Spring Elementary School, Baltimore County, MD – May 29, 2017 / image: Tobi Louise Kester

Every year, Pot Spring Elementary School in Baltimore County, Maryland is faced with what seems to be a big problem. Their Bayscape Garden, where the kids are given hands-on experience with plants, insects, birds, and butterflies, looks something like this:

The Bayscape Garden at Pot Spring Elementary School, Baltimore County, MD – April, 2016 / image: Tobi Louise Kester

Located immediately adjacent to the school’s back door, the garden’s proximity to the pre-K, kindergarten, and 1st grade classrooms is no accident…it’s meant to be a part of the learning environment of the school. But each spring, after the snow melts and the mostly herbaceous plants have been dormant for many months, the Bayscape is a far cry from the vibrant, colorful, and exciting place of adventure the students might imagine when they think of gardens. It looks abandoned and forlorn, a mess that is almost lost in the open space of the school yard. It looks like it doesn’t have much potential for anything besides becoming a bigger mess!

But, as a landscape architect, I know better. I can envision the possibilities of lush vegetation, brimming with life. I see a pathway that leads through the garden, and maybe even a hideaway for quiet viewing of ecology in action (and the blending of science and artistic expression) on a personal scale. I can see children smelling the brightly colored flowers, hearing the birds, touching the delicate (yet somehow tenaciously strong) leaves, and excitedly watching the caterpillars eating the milkweeds, then forming their chrysalises, and transforming into delicate butterflies. I can see it because I’ve helped the School staff, other volunteers, and children of Pot Spring create it before!

It takes many hours of cutting back the previous years’ remnants, weeding, and mulching. It means working in Maryland’s unpredictable spring weather. It involves long days and tedious work. It can be hard to keep focus. Many people have asked why we should bother with it—aren’t there lots of local parks and trails nearby that the kids could visit to get the same experience? Wouldn’t we be better off showing the kids how nature really works in a more natural setting? How much are the kids really learning anyway?

I appreciate all the questions and perspectives. I try to listen patiently and wait for the right moment to bring out the “After” pictures.

The Bayscape Garden at Pot Spring Elementary School, Baltimore County, MD – July, 2016 / image: Tobi Louise Kester

And when I have a chance, I bring out some of my personal collection of thank you notes from the 1st grade children with whom I shared some of my expertise about plants and biology:

Notes collected by Tobi Louise Kester
Notes collected by Tobi Louise Kester

The Bayscape Garden is at its best in late summer and early fall, when the plants have flowered and most have produced their fruits—just in time for the students’ return to school. The butterflies come calling when the garden is ready to feed them, protect them, and provide a place to flutter in. And where you find butterflies, you are likely to also find happy children, actively engaged in the world around them. What might seem like a springtime problem for Pot Spring Elementary School is really the opportunity for adventure and learning, waiting to be revealed.

I’m happy to be a part of it all.

2017 Update: Every year, the garden is more established and initiates growth faster—this year, the plants are already between three and four feet high. (See the header image at the start of the post.)

by Tobi Louise Kester, ASLA, PLA, AICP, CA, LEED AP

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