Natural Phenomena

Posted On March 4, 2020

Dr. Arlene Marturano is a dedicated naturalist, educator and environmentalist


Since childhood, Arlene Marturano has been immersed in nature and outdoor adventure.

Growing up on the outskirts of Chicago, the dedicated educator and environmentalist was surrounded by tree-lined streets, backyard Victory Gardens, forest preserves, prairie remnants, orchards and riding stables.

Her role has a new urgency with recent dire reports on dwindling bird and other wildlife populations, disappearing natural habitats and added threats to the environment. She’s alarmed by the Audubon report that two-thirds of America’s bird species are threatened with extinction due to climate change and the loss of three billion birds since 1970, research conducted by Cornell ornithologist Ken Rosenberg in collaboration with seven institutions.

The education professor writes and conducts teacher professional development workshops like Gardening is For the Birds, Engineering Design for Birds and Inquiry through Project Feeder Watch for Cornell University Lab of Ornithology K-12 Education, while also assisting in the implementation of bird gardens.

Today she peddles plants with words as a member of GardenComm International. She has been the weekly garden columnist for The Columbia Star for two decades and her garden writings have appeared in a “Kids Gardening” column in The State newspaper, not to mention other local, regional and national publications like The American Gardener. She writes for the horticulture industry as well. Her publications on reading, science, environmental and garden education appear in professional journals like the Journal of Outdoor Education and The Reading Teacher, Science and Children, Science Scope and Tomorrow’s Child.

For years, her Columbia garden has been a backyard wildlife habitat certified by the National Wildlife Federation. One endangered native plant she grows is milkweed, which she remembers from childhood.

As one of the voices for monarch habitat restoration throughout North America, Marturano joined the University of Kansas Monarch Watch tagging program in 1992, working with scientists, organizations, growers, garden centers, botanic gardens, academic centers, teachers and students to restore monarch and milkweed populations in South Carolina.

In 2014 her UofSC students planted a Monarch Waystation on campus to bring back monarchs and milkweed. She disseminates the Monarch, Milkweed and Migration Project across the state to create a milkweed beltway of monarch waystations.  

As a professor of elementary and outdoor education at four universities, she has trained teachers to use the natural world of gardens and outdoor spaces as the base for experiential learning and human, physical, perceptual and cognitive growth and development. Her research on the historical and theoretical roots of garden-based learning has been cited in dissertations and in planning documents of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning.

As a member of the American Horticultural Society, she advocates for the development of children’s gardens at schools, homes, and public places nationwide. She is a founding member of the Carolina Children’s Garden, a former three-acre teaching garden in northeast Columbia, serving in leadership roles for 24 years. The American Horticultural Society chose the site for its 2016 National Children and Youth Garden Symposium children’s garden tour. The garden has also been featured in The American Gardener magazine.

Throughout her teaching career she has used the natural environment as a context and content for instruction.  She authored Reading the Environment, a program for teaching reluctant or non-readers to “read” by first observing butterflies, frogs, trees, wildflowers, streams, and all-natural phenomena before reading the printed word.

The model, originated and field-tested in a Lower Richland County school where rural life poverty occurs in a natural environment rich in resources, became an integral part of her environmental education course for teachers taught in state parks. Her paper and lecture on “Reaching Rural Children with What Comes Naturally” is a contemporary offshoot addressing rural education nationwide.

 “Gardens supply much of a child’s early reading material,” she says. “My training in outdoor education cemented my conviction that children learn easily, naturally, and readily through occupations like gardening.” For a decade she was a consultant for the National Gardening Association’s Kidsgardening program. Currently, she directs the South Carolina Garden-based Learning Network, a teaching garden consulting firm, which maintains a popular Facebook page.

Organic methods undergird the nutrition gardening programs she has developed for schools from California to the Carolinas. When a Columbia land developer wanted to spray a school garden site with the biocide methol bromide to clear the weeds, she nixed the notion and introduced non-chemical solarization as a safe and effective alternative for the students, plants, food, soil, water, and wildlife. The subsequent school garden was featured on the front page of Education Today for the bounty of fresh garden produce served in the school cafeteria.


Winter Berries for Birds

Dr. Marturano has many tips for gardeners who want to help support birdlife during the coldest part of the year. Evergreen hollies are, perhaps, the most recognized berry producer, American holly, Ilex americana, Savannah holly, Ilex x attenuada ‘Savannah’ and Yaupon holly, Ilex vomitoria, she says. What deciduous hollies like winterberry, Ilex verticillata and possomhaw, Ilex decidua, lack in leaves in winter, they more than compensate with berries.

Dogwoods like Cornus florida and Cornus kousa overwinter with red berries until the birds deplete.

Mockingbirds, ruby-crowned kinglets, myrtle warblers, and cedar waxwings take advantage of the grayish resin coated berries covering southern wax myrtles, Myrica cerifera. The resin from the berry of this native shrub is used to scent bayberry candles.

By February the red berrylike fruit on the photinia, Photinia x fraseri, will be devoured by flocks of cedar waxwings. The same species of bird bombards cleyera, Cleyera japonica, for the black globose berries.

Woodpeckers, mockingbirds, finches, bluebirds, cardinals, and thrushes feast on glowing red clusters of Viburnum dilitatum ‘Cardinal Candy’ as well as the blue berries of possumhaw virburnum, Viburnam nudum.

The pale blue fruits of the eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana, attract chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, thrushes, cardinals, sparrows, wrens, and thrashers. The dense foliage makes secure shelter for many bird species as well.

Several groundcovers place berries underfoot. The partridge berry, Michella repens, is a native evergreen with prostrate creeping stems often found in deciduous woodlands. Quail, turkey, robin, bluebird, and thrush seek the bright red berries. Creeping wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, preferring shady spots, provides aromatic scarlet berries for birds.

While the berry buffet for birds in your backyard supplies winter nutrition for feathered friends, the plants depend on frugivourous birds to disperse their seeds, an ecological partnership the gardener can coordinate.

Birthplace: Chicago, growing up in northwest suburbs  

Education: Bachelor and master degrees in elementary and outdoor teacher education, Northern Illinois University; Ph.D. in Education from the University of Illinois-Urbana

Professional Affiliations: Has trained teachers at Northern Illinois University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and the University of South Carolina. Additionally, she conducts professional development workshops for teachers through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology K-12 Education.

Professional Memberships: The American Horticultural Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Environmental Education Association of South Carolina, Garden Communicators International, National Audubon Society, National Science Teaching Association, Richland County Master Gardener Association, South Carolina Science Council and UofSC Nutrition Consortium.