By Kim West, Columbus High School Class of 1979

Wide shot of courtyardStepping into the Courtyard area of CNHS for the first time in 43 years, I was immediately shocked. What was once an area overgrown by weeds and a bacteria pond that had outlived its purpose, it felt like I was suddenly at Disney World!

This surely wasn’t the same Courtyard I left behind when I graduated in 1979. It was alive with color, with birds singing and hunting an occasional worm. It was so peaceful. Surrounded by the building itself, the noise of 25th Street was no longer apparent. I found a little piece of paradise in the middle of CNHS.

1977 photo of teacher and students inspecting courtyard.

Biology teacher Cal Martin and his students inspect the overgrown courtyard area of CNHS back in 1977.

The transformation was unbelievable. Through the years, someone or some group was always going to “fix up” the Courtyard. At first they were eager. While some of their projects were completed, they only accounted for a small area and the entire area was never completed.

Natalie Perry, an Economics teacher at North and avid gardener, saw the brush and yard waste every day. Her classroom was in the same hall with windows facing the ugly mess and she witnessed the deterioration first hand every day. She knew something had to be done and with the help of many eager volunteer North students, the project was born.

The first item on the agenda was funding and donations of materials. The Bull Dog Alumni Association provided a grant to the group which allowed them to purchase materials and plants. The Sierra Club also donated plants. The project was underway with an enthusiasm never before seen by students wanting to improve the scenery around their school, not only for aesthetics, but for Mother Nature and the environment.

Members of the Environmental Club, under the guidance of Natalie, saw this massive project through to completion. They added 3,640 square feet of new planting beds where 370 new native plants consisting of 17 species came to life. To fully appreciate the hard work and effort put forth by those involved with the project, I received a copy of the project timeline that Natalie kept. The before and after photos were so incredible that it best told the story.

Environmental club students

Members of the CNHS Environmental Club

July 2021 — The Environmental Club decided it would be awesome to turn the neglected courtyard space into a usable student space.

August 2021 – Members of the Environmental Club, Architecture Club, Art Club, and Conservation Club met to come up ideas for this space. They were encouraged to dream big, and were fortunate to have Exhibit Columbus present the group with a symposium with Bittertang Farm, which brought a really interesting perspective on art, nature, and functionality.

Ultimately, the direction of our plan came down to sustainability.  What could we do with the space that would attract pollinators and would have long term sustainability in structure?

September 2021 – We began seeking approval to move forward with a courtyard makeover.

man working to clean courtyard

Clean-up of courtyard

October 2021 – Major cleanup to remove trash and weed the neglected existing garden space. This took about 61 manhours between two adult volunteers and three student volunteers.

December 2021 – We worked on getting approval from building level administration to move ahead with the project. Contract tracing kept our administrators very busy.  Non-essential decisions were harder to secure.

January 2022  – We obtained funding through Bull Dog Alumni Association and received final approval to move forward with the project.

Landscape plan for courtyard

Landscape plan for the courtyard

February 2022 – Plant order time! The native landscape plan was completed and plants ordered!  Original plant arrival was May 20, literally the last day of school!

March 2022 – Spring break was a busy time!  Volunteers gathered for three days over spring break and new beds were created and mulched, old rock pathways removed, and round wood stepping stones were donated and installed. We were really fortunate that the weather cooperated beautifully!

April 2022 – Plants had to be picked up from Native Plants Unlimited in Indianapolis and approximately 12 volunteers planted over 340 plants on April 30.

The greatest stress by far was timing.  If the weather hadn’t cooperated at any point, it would have been impossible to complete this project. It was also a huge stress getting the plants ordered and orchestrating a pick-up/ installation before May. It was very important that the plant varieties were true natives and not native plant cultivars in order to provide the very best food sources for our pollinators.

May had to be avoided because of AP testing, final exam schedules, and other year end events.

According to Natalie, “The best part of the project was seeing so many kids interested in creating the native plant garden,” she said. “I would also have to add that I think it was pretty awesome to have so much support from within the school and also within local community groups.”

The Sierra Club, as well as Pollinator Parks, Exhibit Columbus, Native Plants Unlimited, the Bull Dog Alumni Association, our principals (Mr. Clark even helped remove sod), Brett Bozeman, and our custodial staff were very patient as we continuously carried the outdoors through the building. Jason Perry, Natalie’s husband, spent many hours using a sod cutter and helping with all aspects of the project. He even took vacation days to help. Everyone was instrumental to the completion of the project. Last but not least was the small army of student volunteers who made this a reality.

Hedy George, Executive Director of the Bull Dog Alumni Association, said the decision to help with this project was an easy one. “Everyone through the years remembers the Courtyard area of the school. It once housed a greenhouse. Several will remember a utility shed as part of the landscape. At one time, there was bacteria pond which didn’t provide much in making the space look inviting. It was time for a beautiful space to be created to be enjoyed by all. We were pleased to help.”

Natalie and Hedy on bench

Natalie Perry and Hedy George enjoy the Summer weather in the Courtyard.

Natalie added, “As a teacher, we also want to make sure kids understand the why of what we’re doing. Why? To educate kids on the environmental impact of something as benign as a plant. To give kids a mental health break in their day, to allow them to see butterflies, and hummingbirds, moths, and bees bring a space to life. We wanted to show the beauty and durability of plants that are native to our home state and to show that native doesn’t have to be unruly. Finally, we wanted to show that we can all do something to improve our environment if we put forth a little effort.”

Growing up, my father owned a small landscaping company and my grandfather had a small farm. We worked with them on many projects from planting a large strawberry patch to finishing a large corporate project. It is hard work but the end result leaves you with such a sense of pride. Gardens have served not only as places to grow plants but as spaces for people to relax, to focus, and to connect with nature and each other. Year after year, as the plants continue to bloom, these students know the gift they’ve left behind for others to enjoy is priceless. Just ask the little birds who have already taken up residency in the CNHS bird house.

Natalie expects the plants to bloom in July but there is one color that isn’t included in the courtyard: orange! Thank you, Natalie, and your army of volunteers for making this place so special for everyone to enjoy. It is stunning!