The National Wildlife Federation (NWF), America’s largest wildlife conservation and education organization, recently named the Oakton Elementary School Garden a Certified Wildlife Habitat. Oakton created the garden through its Garden for Wildlife program. In addition, the Oakton School Rain Garden habitat has been co-certified with NWF’s state affiliate, the Prairie Rivers Network.

NWF certification recognizes gardens that improve habitat for birds, butterflies, frogs, and other wildlife by providing essential elements – natural food sources, clean water, cover, and places to raise young.

The Oakton garden is part of the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a national effort to create a million gardens that provide habitat for declining pollinator insects like butterflies and bees.

“Since 1973, more than 200,000 wildlife gardeners have joined NWF’s Garden for Wildlife movement …,” said NWF naturalist David Mizejewski. “Whether you garden in a suburban yard, an apartment balcony or a 10-acre farm, a schoolyard or a business park, everyone can create a home for local wildlife.”

Clare Tallon Ruen, Geri Smith, Bill Eyring, and Dick Lanyon, friends and neighbors of Oakton School, engineered and built the garden with other volunteers. The garden, a legacy to present and future Oakton School students, demonstrates good stewardship of the environment. Faculty, students, and neighbors enjoy watching the bees and butterflies visit the garden for nourishment. As the garden matures, it will provide additional shelter for birds and small animals.

The Oakton vegetable garden, which was created several years ago and is constantly being improved, is an example of how students and their parents can learn about nature and healthy living.

The rain garden is meant to solve a problem at the school: when it rains hard or snow melts quickly in the spring, the school bus turnaround floods. The rain garden covers a triangular area of about 1,000 square feet between the school building and Oakton Street. The area also boasts one large maple tree and three shrubs. In constructing the garden, the team of gardeners removed the lawn covering the rest of the triangle.

The rain garden is designed to hold all the water two drain pipes channel from 2,400 square feet of roof. After a 1-inch rainstorm, the garden will keep more than 1,000 gallons of water out of the combined sewer under Oakton Street. Instead of polluting the waterways or backing up into basements, the water will soak into the ground, where it will be filtered and can become a resource.

The more than 500 plants in the garden are all native to the Chicago region. There are 21 species that evolved in the prairies and woodlands in soil left behind when the glaciers melted and Lake Michigan receded. Because of their deep roots, these plants can thrive in very wet or dry conditions and make the soil more fertile as they grow and die. These native plants are good sources of food and habitat for native birds and insects that have suffered as buildings, pavement, and lawn encroached.

Oakton third-graders installed many of the garden plants last spring. Now all Oakton students can enjoy and learn from the garden. Each year students and volunteers will need to care for the garden. In the process, they can learn about how the plants grow, compete for space, and interact with animals.

NWF’s Garden for Wildlife program encourages responsible gardening that helps pollinators and other wildlife thrive. It discourages the use of chemical pesticides and encourages planting with native species like the 60 milkweed plants that can host monarch butterflies at Oakton.

Every Certified Wildlife Habitat provides food, water, cover, and places for wildlife to raise their young. Yards, schools, businesses, places of worship, campuses, parks, farms, and other community-based landscapes can all be certified as wildlife sanctuaries. More information on gardening for wildlife and details on how an entire community can become certified is available at www.nwf.org/garden or 1-800-822-9919. Locally, Dick Lanyon at dicklanyon@sbcglobal.net or 312-307-8855 can provide information.

NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitats and Community Wildlife Habitats are presently more than 200,000 strong and growing. Evanston is home to at least nine community gardens: Canal Shores Golf Course; the Civic Center Gardens; Eggleston, Twiggs, and Lighthouse community gardens; Garden Club of Evanston Butterfly Garden at the Lighthouse; Lake Street Church; Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation Garden; and St. Nicholas Catholic Church.

Evanston also has eight nature center/school gardens: Ladd Arboretum; Washington School; Children’s Quest; Orrington Butterfly Garden; Chiaravalle Montessori; Dawes School; Evanston Township High School; and Oakton School.