Monday, March 21, 2011

Families Turn Out for a School Garden Raising

New garden in the making at Stoddert Elementary

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Months of planning resulted in a new garden at my daughter's elementary school Saturday as parents, teachers and kids all pitched in to dig beds, haul compost and spread wood chips.

The masterminds behind construction of the Stoddert Elmentary School garden in Glover Park are two women who live in the neighborhood--Lauren Biel and Sarah Bernardi--who just happen to be passionate about school gardens. Unlike most of us who simply support the idea of school gardens, they actually did something about it, forming a non-profit--D.C. Greens--that operates a farmers market nearby on Wisconsin Avenue precisely to generate funds they can use in their gardening efforts.

Removing clay for blueberries

The site for the garden lies between the school and a new sports field. There's a big tree to offer some shade, a neat little wooden tool shed donated by Home Depot, and an old-fashioned split-rail fence that gives the place a country feel. Biel and Bernardi have been busy lining up sponsors as well as expertise to get the garden in shape. Whole Foods donated a lunch of hot dogs, cole slaw and macaroni salad.

My job was to help dig a bed for blueberries. I quickly discovered that my spade shovel was of little use trying to dig into solid clay. I walked to the hardware store and purchased a five-pound mattock. At one point there were at least eight of us toiling away on this bed, tossing clay to the side and removing stones.

The Slow Cook swings his mattock

You may recognize Sarah Bernardi--she was the art instructor at Bancroft Elementary School who was deeply involved in the garden program that Michelle Obama adopted. Sarah wrote a guest post here describing how difficult it was for teachers to maintain gardens like the one at Bancroft. You may not be surprised to learn that she's left teaching to work in gardening full time. But rather than me telling it, I'll let you read what Sarah sent to me in an e-mail last week:

Teaching was wearing me out! I'm wrinkled and grey haired and I haven't even had kids yet!

I'd been wanting to move out of the classroom for a few years. I began moving away from teaching art and more and more into the garden, which is where my personal interests lay. What I always loved about my job as an art teacher was that it forced me to constantly learn new processes and methods and allowed me to be really creative and 'make stuff'. I realized I can take both of these things with me out to the garden, which is a place - unlike the classroom - that also makes me feel at ease and allows me to be completely present (two things I struggle with!) And that's what I really want to impart on the kids, how gardening can do all of these things, all the while it's teaching you how to eat and how to live.

I've been working with DC Farm to School and DC Greens since leaving teaching and have been really focusing on the Stoddert Garden project. I remain involved with the garden program at Bancroft and am working on the committee there to structure the program for their newly designed garden. I've just begun working at the Farm at Walker Jones, which I'm thrilled about, as it is a perfect marriage of my passion to Farm to School programming and interest in school garden program design.

Lauren Biel founded DC Greens to create a farmers market for the neighborhood that would channel profits back into the community in the form of school garden programs. The seed for the Stoddert garden was planted two years ago when the school was undergoing modernization. Lauren and I connected with a couple of parents, Julie Schneider and Ginger Jacobs, who also loved gardening wanted to include a garden in the plans for modernization. They worked very hard to make that happen and were able to have a very large space (4,000 square feet) earmarked for the garden.

Last year we surveyed the teachers to get their input and developed a plan for the space based on this. DC Greens is fully funding the project using proceeds from last season's market, a Building Healthy Communities grant from Home Depot and a 5% day from Whole Foods. This is allowing many projects that have been started to actually move forward. For example, a first grade class built a green house out of recycled bottles with the help a local architecture firm and it will be finished and installed next week. Mr. Dingledine, a fourth grade teacher, has been developing a relationship with the Monarch Sister Schools program and their chief botanist Christopher Puttock, has created a beautiful butterfly garden design that now has the funding to move it forward. it will be planted at the end of April. We've got Andy Lynch, a colleague of 'Stickwork' artist Patrick Dougherty, ( coming for a week to install a 'Stickwork' entrance designed by Patrick and made from maple branches. He will be assisted daily by local artists and sculpture students, providing a great opportunity for these artists.

We've really tried to thoughtfully consider all of the challenges school gardens face in the planning process and tried to set up a a system that will addresses them. We have a set of about 10 teachers, each adopting a section of the garden for the year. Two teachers will serve as the in school coordinators and will run an after school garden club funded by the PTA. The school is blessed with a strong level of parental and community involvement and I have a long list of volunteers wanting to help with summer maintenance. Whole Foods and the Glover Park Hardware store have adopted the garden and are supporting it long term with in kind donations. DC Greens will continue to structure an support the program, provide professional development for teachers and take care of the details that usually bog teachers down and contribute to the decline of school gardens.

As we know, without a dedicated staff person assigned to oversee and teach in the garden, creating an integrated program remains a challenge. We have not chosen a set curriculum to use but will be setting up a section in the library containing a few of out favorite curriculum guides and books to use in their classrooms. We are anxiously awaiting local curriculum (available for purchase soon!) from City Blossoms and The Washington Youth Garden and hope to provide that for teachers to use that next year.

Building raised beds from kits

You can follow events at the Stoddert Garden at the new blog here. And here are some more pictures of yesterday's garden raising.

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