Partnership benefits Oconee Middle School.

Instead of pencils and paper, the tools Shari Travers’ seventh-grade students used on a recent fall morning were shovels and rakes.

The courtyard outside her classroom window already had been cleared, some invasive plants removed, and space made for a garden. The students, whose curriculum this year includes pollinators, are mixing compost into the soil and will dig holes to accommodate plants like wild blue indigo, New England aster and spotted horsemint, all plants that are native to Georgia and will attract native pollinators.

Melissa Ray, a University of Georgia graduate student, encourages the students to use all the compost in the small planting bed.

“You want to incorporate it into the soil that’s already there,” Ray said. “This is the most important part of any garden.”

Ray and Heather Alley, a UGA conservation horticulturist, are helping develop the school garden as part of Connect to Protect, a program at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia designed to promote the benefits of native plants, native pollinators and their role in protecting our food supply.

It also allows the students to put into practice what they are learning in the classroom, Travers said.

“They feel ownership,” she said.

So far, 16 Connect to Protect gardens have been planted at schools in Clarke, Oconee, Jackson and Gwinnett county schools, on the UGA main campus, at Athens City Hall, at various businesses and nonprofits, and in public areas of Macon.

“Working for the State Botanical Garden, we have an opportunity to not just implement these practices ourselves, but teach the community about it, so there can be a strong ripple effect,” said Alley, who raises the plants used in Connect to Protect projects at the Mimsie Lanier Center for Native Plant Species at the State Botanical Garden, a public service and outreach unit.

The idea for Connect to Protect in Georgia began with Jennifer Ceska, the botanical garden’s conservation coordinator, who had heard of a similar program in Florida. Alley takes care to use plants in Connect to Protect gardens that fit in with the location, such as smaller plants for a small bed, like the one at Oconee County Middle School. She also tries to pick plants that will bloom at different times of year to keep the butterflies, bees and other pollinators nearby.

Keep Athens-Clarke County Beautiful works with the botanical garden to install Connect to Protect plant beds at Clarke County elementary schools.

“We have similar missions of community beautification,” said Stacy Smith, program assistant at Keep Athens-Clarke County Beautiful. “The elementary schools are a perfect fit for the mission of Connect to Protect. They have a built-in audience of learners that will benefit from installing and learning about native plants.”

“We want them to be involved in helping to beautify their community and taking care of the environment.”

A Connect to Protect garden was the perfect way to spruce up a visible area at Cleveland Road Elementary School.

First-grade teacher Kadi Tate-Epps and her students worked alongside volunteers to get the plants in place.

“Students and teachers can (use) the space for teaching and learning,” said Epps, whose school is applying for grants to get classroom furniture for their garden. “Ideas continue to bloom so who knows what all lies in the future.”

Written by: Kelly Simmons