PORTLAND — Sixth graders from King Middle School spent a recent morning planting native wildflowers, shrubs and trees in Deering Oaks Park that have particular connections to and benefits for the park.

The 80 students grew and planted more than 30 different species of Maine plants designed to attract various insects that will provide food for birds nesting in and around the park, according to Eric Tupper, director of education at Maine Audubon.

Audubon worked with the school, the city of Portland and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on the project to restore native wildlife habitat.

Tupper said the project will not only benefit birds and other wildlife; it will also educate some of the more than 50,000 annual visitors to the park about what’s possible even in a highly urban environment.

The students at King Middle not only grew the native plants from seeds, they also produced animated online cartoons that can be easily accessed by QR codes printed on various signs around the park.

“These videos will … enable visitors to observe the plants and learn about their benefits in real time,” Maine Audubon said in a press release.

Ethan Hipple, deputy director of Portland Parks, Recreation and Facilities, said “what was once a relatively sterile, mowed park is now a healthy woodland meadow that creates habitat for wildlife, pollinators and birds.”

“The native shrubs and trees (being) planted, along with the new paths, will help bring this place to life and make it more beautiful for all. We are incredibly excited to have students from King Middle School working to improve the habitat of Deering Oaks Park,” he said.

“This is such an exciting project, as it makes nature accessible to everybody,” added Chris Meaney from U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Tupper said this spring students from King Middle were engaged in Audubon’s special Bringing Nature Home program, which is designed to encourage native plant restoration and community engagement.

Through Bringing Nature Home, Tupper said, “we seek to promote and enable the reintroduction of naturally propagated Maine native plants in gardens, yards and communities throughout Maine.”

“We prioritize plants that are easy to grow and that have proven beneficial to native insects and other wildlife,” he said.

Tupper said Maine Audubon and King Middle have worked together on many experiential learning projects over the years, but this was the first project to focus on long-term habitat restoration at Deering Oaks.

He said Audubon plans on continuing the project with the school, the city and other partners during the upcoming academic year, as well.

Tupper said Audubon’s main role was to help teachers plan the unit and liaise with the city and other partners to manage key components, such as the recent planting day, which was held June 3.

Audubon also supplied the seeds, other plants, and the necessary tools. Funding for the project came from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and a grant from the Sam L. Cohen Foundation.

“Many, many people will buy and plant new plants this year, and too few will be aware of the profound ecological impacts of fewer native plants,” Tupper said.

That’s why it’s critical to do restoration projects in high profile locations, which “enables more people to see and engage with the work,” he said. “This tiny patch of restored forest could be seen by tens of thousands of visitors every summer, and hopefully a few will want to replicate some of it at home.” 

People can get a good start during Audubon’s Native Plants Sale & Festival being held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 15, at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. Experts will also be on hand to help gardeners get started and answer questions.

Tupper said Maine Audubon hopes students not only learn about “beneficial landscape maintenance practices, but also gain an increased sense of social and environmental responsibility.”

“We’ve taught them how to study and tackle problems that they see within their own communities. Wildlife conservation education is an excellent way to not only connect to Deering Oaks, but the wider world,” he said.

“We hope the community gets a vastly improved chunk of wildlife habitat that is beautiful and informative.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Chris Meaney, of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, left, works with sixth grader Conner Burns from King Middle School to restore native plants to Deering Oaks Park in Portland last week.