Outdoor Classroom

Master Gardener in Action
Outdoor Classroom at Hazel M Kellington School, Neepawa

By Glenda MacPhee, Master Gardener

Years ago I took on a two week outdoor learning challenge with my grade one class. It was a wonderful experience and soon my other grade one colleagues joined me with their classes. We had a good variety of trees on our schoolyard and were able to make use of local parks as well. I enrolled in the Little Green Thumbs program to grow vegetables in our classroom and ran a noon hour Garden Club. We planted flowers at the entrances, vegetables in raised beds, a long row of tulips along the west side of the school and trees on the playground.

Principal and Vice Principal of Hazel M Kellington School, Neepawa

But something I had always hoped for was a designated outdoor classroom space. There was an underused area at the north end of the playground near the kindergarten rooms. I drew up a design but there was really no money available at the time. Last spring the principal, such an amazing, supportive person, approached me. He had saved the initial plan all those years and now a family had come forward with a significant donation. It could finally happen.

Garden Plan

I redesigned the area with more specifics. It was an area approximately 12×12 meters bordered by chain link fence on two sides(north and west), and the school building on the south. With consultation from others, we knew we wanted sensory plants that would be of interest in June and September, a few native plants to attract pollinators, a seating area, and a few activities to draw the children in during free play times. It also had to be low maintenance as my retirement was looming.

When school went into remote learning in spring, the sod was removed and trees were ordered. In early August, posts were installed for the activities, and new soil brought in for planting along the periphery. We placed a paper birch, Betula papyrifera and pussy willow, Salix spp. near an existing downspout. After realizing I couldn’t plant a nut tree because of potential nut allergies I settled on and Hotwings Tatarian Maple, Acer tataricum ‘Gar Ann’ for its interesting red samaras. Shrubs included Snowbelle mock orange, Philadelphus x ‘Snowbelle’, Amber Jubilee ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Jefam’ and Lemon Candy ninebark, Physocarpus opulifoius ‘Podaras 3’, and Cream Cracker dogwood, Cornus alba ‘Cream Cracker’, Prairie Petite Lilac, Syringa vulgaris ‘Prairie Petite’ and a Brianna grape, Vitis ‘Brianna’. I planted Andropogon gerardii ‘Blackhawks’ and Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Prairie Blues’ (big and little bluestem), blue oat grass, Helictotrichon sempervirens ‘Saphire Fountain’, Karl Foerster grass, Calamagrostis x acutifolia ‘Karl Foerster’ and ‘Autumn Red’ maiden grass, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Autumn Red’. Perennials included hyssop, milkweed, assorted chrysanthemum (who doesn’t start the school year with the story Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes?) woolly lambs ear, Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Sunfire’, Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), peony, and prairie crocus. A few rocks, donated ostrich fern, and bergenia were added to the shaded area along the school. A gravel base was spread in unplanted areas to slow the decomposition of the bark mulch.

Stripping the elm bark

A local arborist was in the process of removing nearby diseased American Elm. He cut the trees into long logs for a seating area. Retired teachers stripped the bark and the beautiful logs were placed. The shredded elm bark was used to mulch the area. Elm logs, as long as the bark is stripped, and shredded branches can both be repurposed. A whiteboard for teacher use, concrete picnic table, weather station, chalkboard for drawing and pipe xylophone and drain pipe drum were all added to the area. We added numbered stepping stones leading into the space.

Pipe xylophone

Most of the work was done by the retired teachers and staff. It was so exciting to finally have the space come together before school started in September. We will see how well the perennials survive all those little feet. I didn’t get barriers set up in fall and children don’t necessarily realize what can and can’t be walked on but the trees and shrubs had enough time to settle in. I am so grateful to the family who made this dream come true.

Published:  May 2021