When the brand new Seven Locks Elementary School building opened in 2012, people were excited. The modern facility in Bethesda was more than welcome after the previous school had become outdated over time.
There was just one problem.
“The teachers were lamenting that they had no place to take the kids outside,” said Dorothy Chung, a parent volunteer with the school. “There was not much of a natural landscape on the new school grounds.”
The school’s network of volunteers took action, led by the Seven Locks Elementary School Educational Foundation, which helps raise money for capital improvements at the school. How could they create a natural space for students and teachers alike? Furthermore, how could they tie the school to the historic C&O Canal, which sits along the Potomac River and serves as the school’s namesake?
The answer was a conservation landscape. Now, thanks to support from the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection RainScapes program, the landscape is a reality. Teachers and volunteers say it is a beautiful environment that can function as an outdoor classroom for students from kindergarten to fifth grade.
“We wanted the students to think about the connection between caring for plants and caring for the watershed around us,” said Sandy Vogelsang, another school volunteer and director of the school foundation. “You can make it something that matters to kids.”
Debbie Friedman, the master gardener who designed and oversaw the installation of the landscape, drew inspiration from the C&O Canal in the plants and design elements she selected. For example, Joe Pye weed, a native plant that is common around the Potomac River, can grow several feet high for a dramatic effect. Northern sea oats, a native grass species, was planted in curving segments of the garden to achieve an aquatic effect.
“The lock theme was the linchpin of the design,” Friedman said. “The design was simulating a river bed with plants of the Potomac River. They provide movement when the wind blows, and it mimics water flowing.”
The landscape design also has the classroom in mind. Stepping stones go through the plants “to help students interact with the garden,” Chung said.
Adrienne Torrey, an art teacher at Seven Locks Elementary, has taken first and second graders out to the landscape for special classes. Students drew observational drawings of flowers they found in the garden.
A year or more later, Torrey said her students still remember the experience.
“There are so many skills that can be developed outside,” Torrey said. “There is flexibility, with using multiple resources. They are generating ideas and adding details. The students spoke about it really positively. It’s good for them to see real objects instead of pictures of the object.”
Chung, who currently serves as the school foundation’s president, estimated the total price tag was between $15,000 and $18,000. However, thanks to a Rainscapes rebate and community fund-raising efforts, the ultimate out-of-pocket cost was only a few thousand dollars.
“This absolutely would not have been possible without RainScapes,” Chung said.
The RainScapes program provides financial rebates and technical guidance for selected projects—be they at schools, businesses or residences—that help reduce stormwater runoff.
See below for additional photos from this project.
By Scott Harris, Freelance Writer. Read Scott’s other posts on the benefits of environmental peer pressure, birds and climate change, eco-friendly ice rinks, residential solar, and congregational rain gardens.