Nature In The Valley

Say it with me, “Zer Sees.” It’s spelled “Xerces.” People look really awkward when they see that word in writing and need to pronounce it. So now that we have that out of the way… Who or what is Xerces and why are we dedicating a full column to them?

Xerces is a science-based conservation nonprofit formed in 1971. Their full name is “The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.” It is named after the now-extinct Xerces blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche xerces), the first butterfly known to go extinct in North America as a result of human activities.

The Xerces folks announced that they would provide thousands of native wildflower plants in a kit to create butterfly and pollinator habitat for projects that fit their criteria.

“Free” seemed a little too good to be true, so FoHVOS emailed Kelly Gill, the Xerces senior pollinator conservation specialist for the northeast region. Kelly confirmed that kits would be provided to all who applied and met rubric scores that projected a successful implementation.

This was a perfect opportunity for our schools. Prior to the pandemic, Hopewell Valley was Embracing Nature at School, and since the pandemic, schools were heavily using these spaces as outdoor classrooms.

Sure enough, FoHVOS shared the news with school principals at Bear Tavern, Hopewell, and Stony Brook elementary schools who immediately welcomed the chance to apply. All three applied on Jan. 30, and six weeks later, all three were approved!

Each school got to select a native plant kit customized to their projects. In total the native wildflowers will cover about 11,000 square feet, much of it existing lawn that provide limited benefit to our environment.

Although all three projects are very different, each school has significant experience to ensure a successful rollout. Both Bear Tavern and Stony Brook got started with outdoor learning work in 2018. At the same time, Hopewell Elementary made great strides on both indoor and outdoor gardens. So, this ain’t their first rodeo.

Bear Tavern Elementary, the furthest along in their outdoor learning journey, are implementing Biodiversity in the Wetlands. They are augmenting their existing outlearning space with a new meadow that makes better use of a wet area behind the school.

Principal Chris Turnbull, STEM coordinator Tina Overman and 2021 teacher of the year Betsy Finnegan are the implementation team for the program. They sent this statement:

“The flow of water in the back fields of our property makes it very difficult to use the space and as mowed space, there are not many benefits to the environment.  This meadow restoration will give wildlife a new habitat, enable our students and community to discover the diversity of life in a new learning space, and beautify our property.

“We have worked so hard over the last few years to restore the property with a pollinator meadow and plot as well as planting trees. This immense project is the perfect addition to continue our mission to provide students with flexible learning spaces in order to experience nature and science in a hands-on, engaging manner.

“While the immediate benefit will be the beautification of our space and the creation of habitat for the eastern monarch butterfly, it will also help us to instill in our students a sense of wonder and stewardship for the natural world.  Students will be involved in the planning and implementation of the space and will explore the birds, insects and plant life that will be enhancing our grounds.

“Bear Tavern Elementary School is thrilled to partner with the Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space to participate in the Xerces Monarch and Pollinator Habitat Kit Program in order to restore a large portion of our school’s property to its most natural state.”

In education, some of the best lessons are from learning from our mistakes. Stony Brook Elementary are implementing Lessons Learned: Recovering from Deer Damage. The team will replace portions of their existing outlearning space with new native wildflowers. Their 10,000 square foot Stony Brook meadow was one of the most ambitious Community Conservation school projects. The original project employed a landscape architect to design plans that were believed to include deer-proof selections. Unfortunately, the deer did not get the memo.

Principal Steve Wilfing, STEM coordinator Susan Hammill and FoHVOS stewardship director Mike Van Clef make up the implementation team for the project. They sent this statement:

“The Brandon Farms/Stony Brook Elementary School Meadow area established in 2018 serves as an outdoor learning space where Stony Brook students can actively participate in scientific discovery. Students engage in several citizen science projects that foster connections between their local environment and the larger scientific community. They have been involved in planting the original meadow, designing and building bird and butterfly houses, and taking part in lessons that take curriculum to real-world experiential learning.

“The meadow met with some challenges including overabundant deer, severely compacted soils that were underlying the previous grass turf cover, and unexpectedly aggressive native Indian Grass. As a result, the meadow was less effective for many pollinators and had reduced aesthetic appeal. Our goal for this project is to reinvigorate the area by controlling Indian Grass and adding new native plantings that will establish a successful, pollinator-friendly meadow.

“The Stony Brook community is looking forward to continuing their partnership with FoHVOS by assisting in planting the new plants as well as being partners in monitoring, caring for, and enjoying the meadow.”

Hopewell Elementary is designing a brand-new outdoor learning space known as The Nature Harmony Project. They began designing the new project in 2020 with a phased in approach due to funding limitations. The Xerces plants fit perfectly within their plans and allowed them to step up their implementation.

Principal David Friedrich and STEM coordinator, FoHVOS Board Trustee, and 2020 Mercer County teacher of the year Helen Corveleyn make up the implementation team for the project, and sent this statement:

“The Nature Harmony Project is a program developed to utilize an extensive outdoor space to be built on the grounds of Hopewell Elementary School.  Designed by Nectars Landscapes, the space will feature decking around existing old growth trees called the “treehouse,” an infinity mindfulness pathway for wildlife viewing and mindful walking, a rock labyrinth, and a natural parts playground for early childhood learners.

“Native plants selected by FoHVOS will be highlighted as part of the conservation programming taught in the STEM curriculum. All students will receive education around the importance of native plants, creating pollinator habitats and integrating a foundational appreciation for the pollinators that contribute to New Jersey’s biodiversity. The Nature Harmony Project will focus on promoting positive mental health strategies through outdoor learning and mindfulness interventions.

“Natural settings are a wonderful unifier within the world of education. When students are outside the classroom walls and immersed in nature, studies show that they are more apt to create community connections, are better problem solvers and they have increased ability to think critically.

“The NHP will incorporate preschool to fifth grade students and teachers, and will service over 400 students with diverse learning needs. Due to the variety of cultural connections to nature, this project helps facilitate lifelong skills for students of any background.  NHP will help meet the needs of all learners in our public-school setting by promoting emotional well-being, outdoor education, positive self-imaging, awareness of mental health needs, and a connectedness to community and the environment.”

Lisa Wolff is the executive director of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space. Email: lwolff@fohvos.org.

Lisa Wolff is the executive director of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space. Email: lwolff@fohvos.org.

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