The Prairie Gets a Reprieve

A Win-Win Resolution for Indian Hill School

By Lorrie Otto

On a Sunday summer day, two men drove off a Wisconsin interstate to change drivers. They missed the entrance to the public parking lot and turned into the one at Indian Hill School. One man sprinted away from his car and ran toward the principal’s butterfly garden, calling out the Latin names as he did so. Then he slowly sank down on his knees as if he were before an altar. After a moment he looked up and exclaimed, “Where am I? Who created this splendid place? Is it a private college?”

Too bad that the principal was not there to tell him that it was a K-4 public school. The message was so different from the one that the maintenance man had expressed in her office as he introduced himself. “I’m a grass man, myself. I want mowed lawn, nicely clipped shrubs and annual flower gardens here. I don’t wanna drive up to my school and hafta look through stuff to see it.”

Fourteen years ago, Deb Harwell, past-president of Milwaukee Wild Ones, designed and installed the wildflower gardens. They extend across the front of the entire length of the one-story school building. It began as a children’s garden. They put newspapers over the grass. With their little buckets, they helped teachers spread truckloads of sand. Under the supervision of David Kopitzke and Dan Boehlke, two owners of native plant nurseries, the students planted potted flowers. The village of River Hills brought freshly collected leaves that the children mulched around the native plants. Jo Ann Gillespie installed a rain garden pond to collect water from four downspouts. A child-size bridge arched over it. One afternoon after a morning of tests, then principal, Karen Winicki, treated the children by bussing them to land doomed by development. There they dug wild strawberries and small rosettes of woodland species to plant under the old apple trees in front of the school. On another day, Winicki repeated the celebration by taking the children to local grower Yvonne Jensen, where they watched her fork out purple coneflowers from rows in her nursery. Each child was handed one, which was grasped as a treasure and carried in newspapers back to plant in the savannah area.

Maintenance personnel provided strong wooden signs to identify the woodland, wetland, and prairie areas. A matching chair was added for the adored principal to rest in and admire her butterfly garden under her office window. A sundial and five stepping stones with teacher’s names were added years later.

But back to the beginning when we did everything right and nipped trouble before it began. Letters went home to parents explaining what was happening on the school grounds. Botanist Kopitzki gave an evening slide lecture to them and auctioned off charming prints of his wildflower watercolors. During the September, 1990 planting, a grandfather gardener donated a load of topsoil that was spread over the sand by the front entrance. In the spring it exploded into a solid ground cover of garlic mustard! For the following weeks, Monday nights were weeding nights for parents and children.

Later, when the native plants were flourishing, the wives of maintenance men and school board members began calling the budding plants “Winicki’s weeds” or saying, “It looks like an abandoned school.” And so we had a meeting. The principal spoke about her ideas of environmental education. Then Deb Harwell talked as a mother, and I finished off as if I were a grandmother to all children in the world. (How silent they were. We had a ball!)

In July, 1991, a grant of $11,000 was awarded to Indian Hill from the Wisconsin Environmental Education Council to further the efforts of the teachers and students. For three of the following years the Citizens Natural Resources Association gave $3,500 for seed, plants, and maintenance. Later a foundation was established to hire a botanist to add plants, guide, guard, and lecture on that scattered piece of native vegetation. What began as a children’s garden became a secret garden for adults. Some contributed special plants from their estates such as Tula Erskine’s yellow lady slippers and her twin-leaf Jeffersonia.

As the seasons have progressed, each species has found its favorite spot and companion. Fourteen years have passed and the school has become ever more famous for its diverse, intriguing display. Not only do videos of it circulate through the United States, but also in England, Italy, Japan, and Israel. The Keeper of the Forests, from China, came to visit me, but the only photographs he took home to his country were of Indian Hill – an American grade school ensconced in American flowers. Martha Stewart TV has made an August date to return to Indian Hill.

With all of its fame and exquisite beauty, one would never dream that a maintenance man could convince school officials to replace the gardens with lawn. That almost happened. However, at this writing it appears that Indian Hill has been saved, for now, from the Holiday Inn look. When the monstrous new drainage system is installed, it will be healed over with dry-prairie grasses and flowers. Whew! Thank you all for helping us get this far.

Lorrie Otto is an honorary board member of the Wild Ones organization and a member of the Milwaukee North (WI) Chapter.

This article appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of the Wild Ones Journal.