Sustainable Urban Design: Educator’s Toolkit for Project-Based Learning, page 11 of 20

A student selects native plants for a rain garden in Philadelphia
A student selects native plants for a rain garden at W.B. Saul High School in Philadelphia. © Andrew Kahl/TNC

Creating Urban Habitats: Native Plant Gardens

Using native plants in an outdoor space can create urban habitat for wildlife to thrive. Insects and other animals have a preference for plants native to their region and in some cases, are unable to eat or reproduce on non-native species. Native plants are often more pest resistant and tolerant to local conditions or extreme events like drought, which can reduce water use as well as the need to use chemicals for pest control. This means less polluted runoff making its way into our water bodies! By integrating native plants in our urban environments, we help to support biodiversity and ecosystem health by providing a basis for all organisms, including humans, to be healthy and fruitful.

Get Started

  1. Develop a planting and sustainability plan.
    • Where are you going to plant?
    • What are the light and soil conditions in the areas?
    • Do you need to amend the soil?
    • What size of plants can the location support?
    • What is the best time of year for planting in your area?
    • Where is the nearest water source? How will you water the plants?
    • How will you ensure long-term maintenance of the garden throughout the school year and over vacations or breaks?
    • Do you need permission from administrators? Groundskeepers?
    • Are there utilities that you need to locate before digging?
  2. Determine your ecoregion and use an ecoregional planting guide to identify native plants in your area. Conduct an online search for native plant resources city, county, or state. Some areas have ready-made planting plans for native plants specific to location.
  3. Find a local nursery dedicated to stocking native plants.
  4. Seek out and contact community organizations who might be willing to assist or share their expertise with your classroom.
  5. Determine the equipment and supplies you’ll need. Use a budget calculator to help determine expenses.
  6. Determine what permissions you’ll need for planting and notify parents so that students can dress appropriately. Consider any safety precautions you should take on planting day.
  7. Determine if you’ll need volunteers to help with planting day and if you’ll need help bringing the plants and supplies to your location.
  8. Have a planting party and be sure to document your project with photos! Have students send a press release to local newspapers to educate the community about native plant gardens and the community event.

Common Challenges

  • Getting permission from school boards and maintenance staff.
  • Finding an appropriate location.
  • Watering though the summer.

Maintenance Schedule and Other Notes

  • Watering typically needs to take place during the summer (when the students are not in school). Connection to the irrigation system may be necessary. Or, consider adding rain barrels or a cistern nearby.
  • Weeding at least 3 or 4 times a year.
  • Plants may need to be cut back or replaced. A biannual assessment is recommended.
  • Adding mulch to the garden yearly.

Related Lessons and Classroom Integration

Additional Project Resources