Fourth Grade Awarded Unity Gardens Grant

Students and teachers stand with Sally Iliff from Unity Gardens in the new native plant gardens planted by the students.

Key’s fourth graders kicked-off 2021 with an ambitious plan to win a grant to support the creation of a native plant garden on Key’s campus. Having delved into studies of biodiversity with Science Coordinator Amy Cline, the students learned about the integral importance of native plants to healthy ecosystems, and their wheels started turning as they began to envision the potential transformation of spaces on Key’s campus.

Introduced to Unity Gardens, a local non-profit organization that provides funding to other non-profits for the purchase of native plants for conservation, the students set their sights on writing a grant proposal with help from Maker Tech & Thinkering Studio Coordinator Carol Mahoney. 

“Once they realized we could actually create native gardens if we received the grant, they were really excited and they took the entire process very seriously,” explained Ms. Mahoney. 

Student with Facilities Director Noel Gasparin planting the Unity Garden

Working with Noel Gasparin, Key’s Director of Facilities, the teachers identified three meadow plots behind the Manse Addition that would be enhanced by native plantings, both for soil conservation purposes and as ideal teaching and learning spaces. Each of the three 4th-grade homerooms was assigned a plot and broken up into teams of two or three, which were then tasked with creating garden designs to present to Mr. Gasparin, who is a certified Chesapeake Bay Landscape Planner.  Students were asked to take into account the spaces assigned to them, the requirements of the plants, and aesthetic considerations.

They began their work by conducting more in-depth research of native plants to learn about their respective environmental benefits and ideal growing conditions. They then used graph paper to measure and design their plots.

Mr. Gasparin selected the top three designs in each homeroom, and then the class and their teachers voted on the final three designs, which were submitted with the grant proposal.  

As part of the proposal, students crafted impact statements not only describing their design but also the benefits they believed their gardens would have within their community. “They were incredibly thoughtful in writing about these gardens and in explaining how they saw them enhancing both campus and the environment,” said Ms. Mahoney.

Excerpts from their drafts highlight the depth of their understanding as well as genuine investment in stewarding the ecosystems around campus.

From students from Mr. Branscombe’s class: “A native plant garden at Key School will have a big effect on the students because when they learn about plants they can go to the garden and study them. Plants are also good for calming people and making them happy. The garden would also be fun to take care of. At recess and after school, we could sit out there and read. People also could catch butterflies and discover caterpillars and other amazing creatures.”

Students tilling soil in Unity Garden

Students from Ms. Smalley’s class wrote, “The garden will help Hillsmere because others living here might take Key School as inspiration and do the same on their property. Then we can see more wildlife!”

Students from Ms. Young’s class shared, “It would also be fun because we're doing it together as a 4th grade team.”

In early April the students learned they had been awarded the full $1,000 grant--the maximum possible--and their visions were about to become reality. In a show of support for the students’ initiative, SiteOne Landscape Supply waived their delivery fee, enabling the students to stay within their budget. 

Planting day was a celebratory event with students breaking up the soil, loosening the roots of each plant before nestling them into the earth, and mulching and watering the plots. They also made stepping stones from recycled tile that will be added to the gardens along with a wooden bridge to create designated pathways for visitors. 

Science Coordinator Amy Cline is excited for the students to learn more about landscape conservation, biodiversity and native species in this amazing new outdoor classroom they helped create. 

Students planting the Unity Garden

Unity Garden Board Member Sally Iliff, who is the parent of Key alums Francie Iliff Van Ostenbridge ‘96 and Marshall Iliff ‘93, visited Key in May to present the students with a plaque for the garden and was able to hear firsthand about their experiences planting the spaces.  

While reflecting on the project, student Penelope Riedel said, “Planting the garden had a positive impact because it’s changing a small part of this world. If we do our part to help change the world, other people can see the garden we planted and get inspired to do their part, too.”

Fourth grader Will Harrington added, “There will be more spiders who eat mosquitoes and there will be more bees to pollinate the plants. This will all help Key and the wider Hillsmere community.”

And, student Lucia Lochner shared her hope for a sustained impact saying, “I think people will want to plant more gardens everywhere. Key School counts on us to be role models.”


See more images of our students hard at work making their visions of native gardens at Key a reality!