Maintaining a garden is a constant training. In this respect, all gardens are learning gardens. Schullern gardens, however, are particularly fertile soil for growing young gardeners.
Approximately 75% of all Seattle public schools have an on-site learning garden. These range from an accompanying circle of stumps in a corner of the school yard to raised beds with edible plants, pollinator plantings or a functioning rain garden. Along with lettuce, peas and beautiful flowers, these productive spaces lead to discussions about natural resources, food security and social justice.
Gretchen DeDecker recently retired from her position as a self-help project manager at Seattle Public Schools. The self-help program is a central command for the maintenance of school gardens. “School gardens are mostly run by volunteers,” says DeDecker. Some schools have a paid garden coordinator, usually funded by the PTA, with an integrated curriculum for all grade levels. But even places with fewer resources still offer a connection to nature, a place where families can socialize before and after school and gather places for professional development. It seems that teachers, maybe especially teachers, sometimes prefer to be outside than inside. Then the pandemic hit.
According to Colleen Weinstein, DeDecker’s successor at Self Help, even COVID failed to shut down innovative school garden coordinators who were struggling to create meaningful and inspiring lessons via distance learning. Orca School has the oldest school garden in Seattle, which is almost 30 years old. There, gardening coordinator Anthony Warner was handing out garden products, dried herbs and other garden gifts to families when they picked up weekly worksheets and literally “homework”.
It’s pretty impressive.
Weinstein may be new to the job, but her background in landscaping and the decade she supported school gardens when her children were high school students mean she has a unique perspective on every aspect of maintaining a school garden. Weinstein wants to offer fairer gardening support throughout the district and create stability, even with constantly changing school populations. Local churches and nonprofits help and help, but gardens need regular maintenance.
“School has always been a magnet to bring a community together,” notes Weinstein. She sees school gardens as a potential way to bridge generations and maintain connections as children move on.
Gardeners are generous by nature. What if we cultivated a pool of potential volunteers and gardeners willing to take care of school gardens? Today’s gardeners – neighbors, landscapers, and local tree nurseries – are picking up tomorrow’s growing gardeners.
Interested? Contact Self Help (firstname.lastname@example.org) to find out how you can help maintain these learning environments that add beauty and abundance to our neighborhood as well. Perhaps donate a tree bag, those nifty devices that are used to water newly planted trees. Or you can volunteer to fill this tree sack with water twice a week during the dry season. It all adds up to a future shady place where children and families can gather. Seed packets, plant starts, landscaping materials, and basic tools – what do you need to share?
Gardeners are dreamers and doers. Weinstein is hopeful. “It would be nice if we could get all the gardens ready for the schools to reopen,” she says.
Lorene Edwards Forkner
is the author of The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Great Vegetables, Timber Press, 2021. Follow us on ahandmadegarden.com.