TENDING A GARDEN is a constant education. In that respect, all gardens are learning gardens. But school learning gardens are particularly fertile ground for growing young gardeners.
About 75% of all Seattle Public Schools have some sort of on-site learning garden. These range from a companionable circle of stumps in a corner of the schoolyard to raised beds filled with edible crops, pollinator plantings or a functional rain garden. Alongside lettuce, peas and beautiful flowers, these productive spaces prompt discussions around natural resources, food security and social justice.
Gretchen DeDecker recently retired from her position as Self Help Projects manager with Seattle Public Schools. The Self Help program is command central for tending school gardens. “School gardens are operated mostly by volunteers,” DeDecker says. Some schools have a paid garden coordinator, typically funded by the PTA, with an integrated curriculum throughout every grade level. But even those sites with fewer resources still provide a connection with nature, a place for families to socialize before and after school, and gathering places for professional development. It seems that sometimes teachers, perhaps especially teachers, would rather be outside than indoors. Then the pandemic hit.
According to Colleen Weinstein, DeDecker’s successor at Self Help, even COVID couldn’t shut down innovative school garden coordinators who scrambled to create meaningful and inspiring lessons via remote learning. Orca School has Seattle’s longest-standing school garden, which dates back nearly 30 years. There, garden coordinator Anthony Warner distributed garden produce, dried herbs and other garden gifts to families when they picked up weekly work sheets and, quite literally, “home” work.
It’s pretty impressive.
Weinstein might be new on the job, but her background in landscape design and the decade she spent supporting school gardens when her children were students mean she has a unique perspective on every aspect of tending a school garden. Weinstein would like to provide more equitable garden support throughout the district and introduce stability, even with constantly changing school populations. Local churches and community service organizations pitch in and help, but gardens need regular tending.
“School has always been a magnet for drawing a community together,” Weinstein observes. She sees school gardens as a potential way to bridge generations and maintain connections as kids move on.
Gardeners are generous by nature. What if we cultivated a pool of potential volunteers and gardeners willing to tend school gardens? Today’s gardeners — neighbors, landscape professionals and local nurseries — lifting up the growing gardeners of tomorrow.
Interested? Reach out to Self Help (firstname.lastname@example.org) to find out how you can help tend these learning environments that also bring beauty and bounty to our neighborhoods. Maybe you donate a tree bag, those nifty devices that keep newly planted trees watered. Or maybe you volunteer to go fill that tree bag with water twice a week during the dry season. It all adds up to creating a future shady spot for kids and families to gather. Packets of seeds, plant starts, landscape materials and basic tools — what do you have to share?
Gardeners are dreamers and doers. Weinstein is hopeful. “It would be nice if we could get all the gardens to a point where they are ready for when schools reopen,” she says.