BLM botanist helps brings native gardens to area schools

Roosevelt Elementary Native Plant Garden
Roosevelt Elementary School student by the native garden

The smell of sagebrush, the rustle of wild grasses, a buzzing of hummingbird wings, and the brilliant yellow of rabbitbrush flowers covered in butterflies—all sights and sounds that southwest Idaho students can enjoy through their school’s native gardens, thanks in large part to a partnership with the BLM. 

Bruneau Field Office Botanist Holly Hovis is leading efforts to bring native plant gardens, with all their ecological, economic, and educational values, to school districts in Boise and throughout southwest Idaho.

“It is rewarding to help raise students’ awareness to the natural world around them,” says Hovis. “We hope that these native plant gardens grow an appreciation for the complex natural resources we have on the public lands.”

Schools in southwest Idaho have been making room for native plant gardens as a way to enhance traditional classroom learning and to provide hands on experiences for their students. The gardens also provide an economic benefit by reducing watering costs associated with non-native lawn grasses.

Holly started this work at the Boise District Office by first converting an existing native area to an ethnobotany garden highlighting traditional uses of native plants in southwest Idaho. With increased management attention to sage-grouse, she developed a second garden and interpretive materials to demonstrate habitat requirements of sage-grouse. Over the years, these two gardens at the Boise District have hosted many educational programs ranging from school age children to adult continuing education programs.

Holly Hovis at Hawthorne School
Holly Hovis at Hawthorne Elementary School

After managing a modest native garden on the grounds of the Boise District Office, in 2010 Holly reached out and formed a partnership with the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office, Idaho Botanical Garden, and Idaho Native Plant Society to create an educational native plant garden at Roosevelt Elementary School in Boise. The project included outdoor classroom space, a kiosk, weather station, metal sculpture, and native bee houses. 

Hovis’s native garden work has since expanded to urban and rural schools throughout the region, including the Bruneau Elementary School and Rimrock High School located in rural Owyhee County. This expansion has helped BLM to develop positive relationships with many families who rely on public lands for livestock grazing, recreation, and other uses.  Holly and Kristin Lohr from the US Fish and Wildlife Service are also partnering with local libraries to develop native gardens that will be incorporated into library nature and gardening programs.

In October 2017, Boise’s Hawthorne Elementary School was the latest to celebrate the opening of their native garden. Holly, along with the school’s volunteer Garden Coordinator Amy Pence-Brown, worked over two years to make the plan a reality.

“Hawthorne Elementary is the perfect place for an urban/school garden,” says Pence-Brown, who is also a parent at Hawthorne Elementary. “Building this garden and expanding our outdoor educational opportunities brings together our students, parents and neighborhood community members by providing projects that beautify the school and help us further appreciate our native environment.” 

The garden is part of Boise's Neighborhood Investment Program for the Vista Neighborhood and doubles as a local park and gathering place. The garden is extensive and includes a pollinator garden, artist garden, sensory garden, student experimental garden and teacher’s relaxation space.

Students at Rimrock High School with native plant garden
Rimrock High School School students Sierra Lawrence
and Valeria Lino proudly display dozen native plants.  

“With Holly’s expert guidance, we knew this garden would be an instant success - it's been great” said Pence-Brown.

In addition to working with eight schools and two libraries in the area, Holly is part of a collaborative effort to publish a Native Garden Guide for Southwest Idaho. The guide, which will be available in July, was created to help everybody from backyard gardeners to urban planners turn their landscapes into native gardens, including partnership building, grant writing, and project planning.

“I'm very passionate about native gardens as learning environments," says Hovis. "There so much school kids can learn about native plants in these settings that can be applied to the wild world around them." she said.