Learning in the great outdoors

If there's one thing I've learned about children and gardening, it's how a fascination for insects can capture their attention - for longer than 30 seconds. While many girls prefer the beautiful, boys can often explode into rapture at the most gruesome. With the beginning of the school year looming, it's a great time to get your kids thinking about how they might be able to help make their school grounds more attractive, interesting and educational by creating mini ecologies.


Insects that pollinate, including bees, butterflies, beetles, moths, wasps, lizards and many different types of fly, are one of the most important links in our food chain. While some food crops, such as corn, are pollinated by the wind, many other plants rely on insects to transfer pollen and help them set fruit. As these busy little insects flit from plant to plant, thrusting themselves deep into a flower to drink its nectar, pollen sticks to their bodies. When they alight on the next flower and burrow into it, the pollen is shaken off and their good work is finished.

Planting a pollinator garden will help sustain insect pollinator populations and benefit anyone who has fruit trees or a vege garden in the area. oany schools have vege patches to teach kids about self-sustainability, so a pollinator garden is the ideal accompaniment and has added educational value – especially for budding entomologists.

Simply clear a patch of soil, scatter wild flower seeds, and water. once flowers start to appear, the patch will be humming with a wide variety of pollinating insects. Purchase wild flower seeds at garden centres or online, at


Planting plenty of nectar-producing plants will attract all different types of butterflies. Wild flowers, old-fashioned perennials and butterfly bush (Buddleja) are all fantastic sources of nectar. The Buddleja ‘Silver Anniversary’ is a very attractive variety, and perfect for the school playground.

However, butterflies are very specific as to which plant they lay their eggs on, so if you want them to stay in your garden and breed, you must plant the correct host plant. oonarchs like to lay their eggs on swan plants (Gomphocarpus species), scarlet milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) and the particularly frost-hardy butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Copper butterflies tend to prefer native pohuehue or mingimingi (ouehlenbeckia species). Blue butterflies like clover, and both red and yellow admirals are very partial to stinging nettle – which unfortunately isn’t the best choice for a school garden.


Kids who prefer more formidable creatures may like to create a weta cave out of rocks, concrete, plaster of Paris or hypertufa. Weta like to live where they can crawl through a small hole into a larger void, so ideally a moulded cave would have a “double-skinned” wall with a space in between and small holes in the inner wall.

Place pieces of old tree stump (with ready-made holes) and plenty of leaf litter and twigs around the inside of the cave to create a safe and homely environment. Alternatively, nail pieces of thick bamboo to trees to create weta hotels.

Attract geckos and skinks to your area by leaving piles of leaf litter in shaded spots in the garden. Plant hebes, flax, pohuehue and cabbage trees for food and shelter, and nestle small squares of corrugated roofing material into the leaves to serve as “lizard lounges”. Pop a few rocks in a sunny spot nearby to provide a basking platform.

Native manuka and pohutukawa trees are excellent at attracting stick insects and all sorts of interesting creepy-crawlies, including huhu bugs, centipedes and slaters. These bugs will start appearing if you leave rotting branches scattered among the leaf litter on the ground.



A copse of native trees is essential in any school garden to attract birds – both native and introduced. Kakabeak, kowhai, puriri and the lovely climber tecomanthe are all fantastic sources of nectar. Five finger, karamu, karaka, mapou and pittosporums all provide masses of juicy berries.

Schools can offer a wonderful, cat-free environment for birds, and if their gardens are designed to cater for a wide range of delectable insect life, the birds will be even more happy.

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