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These gardens are for teaching and protecting schools from flooding

The sidewalk at an elementary school is flooding. Every time it rains, it ends up covered in mud, which the kids track into the building. At another one, the playground is underwater after a big storm. At yet another, it’s the classrooms that end up soggy. When Jeanette O’Connor hears about issues like this in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district, she doesn’t think in terms of sandbags. She thinks in terms of landscaping and native plants.

“The project we did at Seawell Elementary School, we put in two rain gardens, an infiltration trench and four cisterns to control the water that was coming off the building,” O’Connor says. Now, the Chapel Hill school’s campus no longer floods – plus, runoff isn’t immediately dumped into Bolin Creek, but is filtered and slowed by an infiltration trench.

With her Lands and Waters South nonprofit, O’Connor creates living classrooms with a dual purpose. Students can go to them to learn about pollinator species and local wildlife, but these gardens and landscape elements are working even after class lets out and the children head home. O’Connor addresses recurring problems with practical solutions, and these solutions keep stormwater runoff from eroding hillsides and flooding classrooms.

“A lot of the schools here were built back in the ’70s,” O’Connor says. “Nobody was thinking about the stormwater issues we’re now thinking about.”

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Between climate change bringing more torrential rain to the area and an increase in local development, there’s more water when it rains, and it has fewer places to go. Carrboro and Chapel Hill may appear rural in comparison with Washington, D.C., where the first Lands and Waters nonprofit was formed, but increased construction here means that there are pockets of trees rather than huge tracts of forest, by and large. Subdivisions simply can’t absorb as much rainwater as undeveloped land would, and that water has to go somewhere. Sometimes, it floods a school playground, like the one at Frank Porter Graham Elementary in Chapel Hill.

“When they built the school, the creek was probably not hitting that level very often because there wasn’t a massive development built,” O’Connor says.

Four years ago, Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools created a coordinator of sustainability position. Dan Schnitzer started at that job at about the same time O’Connor moved to Carrboro with the ambition of starting Lands and Waters South. It didn’t take long for the two to connect, and their partnership has led to several projects within the school system.

“I’m always skeptical of things that seem too good to be true, so when Jeanette offered to write grants and to provide the funding through that and provide education on native and sustainable landscaping, I kept thinking, ‘What’s the catch?’ ” says Schnitzer. “She brings people in. She’s focused and driven and knows her stuff and gets it done, and the projects have been great.”

O’Connor doesn’t do it alone. She writes grants, and she finds the best team for the problem at hand. She brings in engineers, watershed experts and plant experts. Indeed, she thinks ecologically, but tends to plan and organize like a public works officer. On top of forming a team of experts, O’Connor finds ways to bring kids into the process, like making sure a solution can also be a place for students to study butterflies or ecosystems, for example.

Schnitzer loves gardens – he left Chicago for North Carolina partly so he could plant one – yet he, like O’Connor, knows that the benefits of having a school garden have to be weighed against logistical questions: Who will run it during the summer? What if the teacher who runs it leaves or runs out of time to run it? Yet O’Connor’s approach shifted Schnitzer’s own idea of what a school garden could achieve.

“[She] shifted my mind from an ornamental solution to a practical one,” Schnitzer says. He has a message to his counterparts in other school systems, too.

“Find your own Jeanette. But not Jeanette, because I need her.”

Lands and Waters South

103 Mulberry St. Carrboro, NC 27510

Contact: Jeanette O’Connor, 703-678-6893

Description: Utilizing sustainable landscaping practices that promote native plants, healthy soils and low-impact development, Lands and Waters South creates “living classrooms” on school grounds that curb stormwater runoff, provide wildlife habitat and establish places for students to study subjects including science, the arts, and community/cultural connections.

Donations needed: General funding for projects, especially for overhead costs that are often not covered by grants. Plants or seeds that are native to the Piedmont. Building materials such as large rocks, stepping stones, large logs, soil, mulch, gravel and Chapel Hill grit.

Volunteers needed: Volunteers needed to help maintain gardens. This usually includes weeding, mulching, collecting seeds for future projects and transplanting plants that we have too many of or that are in the wrong place. Also needed to install projects. All planting is done by students, but we often need help preparing for planting or installing the hardscape aspects of the project (cisterns, walking paths, etc.). Translators to help ensure all students can participate and understand the projects in which they are participating.

$10 would buy: Five plants for a project.

$20 would buy: 1 cubic yard of shredded hardwood mulch.

$50 would buy: A planting day for two classrooms of students (usually 40-50 children).

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