The sun is back! The sun is back!!

19 Apr

After a long, cold stretch, we’ve finally got a forecast with more blue than gray ahead.  It’s still pretty chilly if you’re in anything other than direct sunlight, but just a few sunny days and it’s as if Portland is born again. Thank heaven.

On Sunday we had our April community work party at the garden.  Unfortunately, I was on the tail end of recovering from my first experience with food poisoning, and in my haze I forgot to bring my camera. So hopefully my words will suffice until I make it back out.

Sunday was The First Sunny Day, and it was nearly perfect for gardening.  Four of my usual students came with their two respective moms, and one said family had invited their Girl Scout troupe, so we had five (?) new little girls and their moms in the garden to boot (I’ll admit I wasn’t in top form that afternoon and lost count).  It got a little chaotic with so many new kids and me feeling so drained, plus I think we were all a little sun-crazy, but fortunately there were plenty of adults on hand to supervise.  There’s a  biology professor at PCC who has brought her classes to the garden on field trips for the past year or so, and since they couldn’t schedule a trip with me this spring she offered her students extra credit to come help out at our work parties, so we had two new surprise helpers as well.

I pointed out two of our most predominant weeds, red dead nettle and bittercress (both very easy to identify and hard not to find once you know them) and set everyone to work throughout the garden.  Before long, I was nearly trapped in front of our compost bins by towering piles of weeds, trying to make room for it all and intersperse the fresh greens with the dried and composted material we already had.  At the end of a few hours, we’d cleared a few beds and were ready to plant potatoes, lettuce, parsley and mustard greens.  Our compost should be cooking (and thankfully, making more room) in no time. The kids busied themselves finding all the “edibles” in the garden (collards, chives, and pea shoots was all), and attempting to engage with the mud pit without actually getting muddy. At the end of the day the garden was picked clean and one little girl at least had a ring of green around her mouth that would rival the best milk mustache you’ve ever seen. She marched around the garden with a collard leaf in her hand and a smile on her face like most kids would with a lollipop of similar size.  What a wonderful way of measuring the success of one’s work!

In other grin-inducing news, I learned on Friday that I’ve been accepted to attend a three-day intensive immersion program this summer in Berkeley: The Edible Schoolyard Academy: Creating Garden and Kitchen Classrooms in Every Community.  The Edible Schoolyard, started by famed chef and Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters (who helped start Woodlawn’s educational garden back in the day!), is perhaps the most famed and successful garden-based education program around, and I’m really excited about the opportunity to not only learn first-hand how they operate, but to hopefully get myself on her radar as well.  [I went and visited the Edible Schoolyard last winter, I'll post pictures shortly].

The cost of the Academy will be $650, which I’m not at all sure how I’m going to cover at this point (even if I do resume or find paid work immediately, I’ll probably not have that much extra before the registration deadline next month).  I’m going to apply for a scholarship through the Endowment for Unexceptional Humans (awesome!), but I’m also accepting donations, if anyone wants to help sponsor this exciting opportunity (for what it’s worth, since I can’t offer a tax deduction, my birthday’s coming up!)  I was just looking into setting up a “donate” button, but in my research it looks like PayPal takes a slice of the pie, and I’d prefer not to go through them–so if you’d like to contribute in any capacity (even with other scholarship leads), feel free to be in touch through this site. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but it’s going to happen, and I’m excited.

Well, all this talk of sunshine and now I’m sitting in shadows and getting cold.   I’m going to go catch what’s left while I can.

License to Grow

12 Apr

Spring is officially here: so what if we’ve scarcely broken 60 degrees yet, the days are long again and the landscape swells daily.  It’s not yet clear what the Children’s Gardening Program at Woodlawn will be like this year, but at least for that  I can comfort myself with the knowledge that I’m not out in the cold and gray, teaching uniformed children in the mud all day.  I mean, I do miss my job, but not so much the waiting-out-the-hailstorm-in-the-shed -when-classes-cancel part.  So even if I’m not working yet, at least I’m warm and dry.

Other developments… I am now officially certified as a School Garden Coordinator, the most excellent training I’ve encountered since entering this field:

And last month we had another humble but I say successful work party at the Woodlawn Children’s Community Garden:

(These photos are of the same corner but from different vantage points~note the red car)

Again we focused primarily on the front area of the garden, what’s most visible, and started working our way back.  We pulled lots of weeds and planted some peas, radishes and a few different greens (interestingly, we’re out of spinach and carrot seeds because they were both so popular last year!).

Things went well, although it admittedly underscored for me how much more work it is to maintain a garden in this manner! The sun may still be hiding most of the time, but those weeds are in full-tilt growth mode, and many have already gone to seed.  The difference between organizing a work party from home as a volunteer versus as an employee/teacher with weekly on-site interactions with your target audience… well, it’s notable.   I’m pretty pleased with the work we were able to do on that drippy afternoon, all told, and thanks to everyone who came out to help! There are little sprouts popping up all over the place now.

And: the next work party is this next Sunday, the 17th, 1-4pm, so mark your calendars!

Thanks also to everyone who’s voiced their support for the Children’s Program at Woodlawn in recent months.  Within a week of my last post, I was called in for a meeting downtown with my former boss from Community Gardens and with her direct supervisor from Parks.  I learned that Commissioner Fish’s office secured $6,500 from the PP&R scholarship fund to provide one-time finances for a shortened version of the Children’s Gardening Program at Woodlawn, which they intend to run from June through October.

I am extremely grateful–not only for the funding the Commissioner and his team have secured, but for the efforts of all the neighborhood community members, families, businesses and participants on behalf of the Children’s Gardening Program.  We really did achieve something, and the Commissioner has held true to his word. You all deserve tremendous thanks and celebration.

I am somewhat concerned, admittedly, about the logistics of the plan to start in June.  In my experience with this position over the past several years, my start date has varied from as early as late-January to as late as May and June.  And I can speak from this experience as to the tremendous impact  of an early start, particularly with respect to the important metrics, i.e. # of participants, lbs. of food, etc., and the ability to track them meaningfully. My suggestion at the meeting was to let my position start back up right away, so I can use my new skills from the training to work on developing a gardening committee, organize a fundraiser as we’ve done in the past, and fill the gap to provide as full of a program as possible given that it’s already April, several months behind schedule.

Allow me to elaborate:

–School gets out in June, and families typically have set plans for summer activities by that time; by (re-)developing relationships with students and families through the spring, they are much more likely to set aside time to remain involved in the garden throughout the summer and subsequent fall.

–Partnerships with teachers have been strongest and most numerous in the spring; most of the teachers I’ve worked with in the fall were ones that began in the previous spring.  The most significant number of participants we’ve had (up to 200 students per week) occurred during the past two spring sessions (when my position started in February), including in-school and after-school participants as well as guest volunteer groups and field trips planned early in the season.

–Planning/planting for fall and winter crops begins in June, and it’s often too late to plant many summer crops at that point as well; the amount and cultural appropriateness of food we’d be able to produce and provide to families in need would be significantly reduced by starting in June.

–This is what the rest of the garden looks like right now (and this is after two work parties and a fair amount of volunteer help) :

…And we’re barely into spring yet! It’s really pretty remarkable how much constant attention a space like this requires, and how quickly nature takes back what is not claimed.  I went by the garden this weekend because it was sunny for a little bit, and I must admit it’s shocking to see the garden in this state. Part of me wants to just put in the work myself, but in all honesty all that work can’t really be done effectively by one volunteer, however passionate or well-connected.  To pick it back up in June though could be harder still. You need a person there regularly to keep a pulse on the land, keep participants engaged and invite others to participate. I’ve never seen the space so sloppy or unproductive, and it’s a bit of a shock to see the hard maintenance work we achieved over the last few years so quickly undone.  I know the neighborhood takes a lot of pride in the bounty and beauty they’ve come to see in that garden in recent years, and  wonder what they think it means that it’s fallow now.

 

My suggestion, which I think is logically and logistically sound, is to let the program (i.e. the program coordinator position) start soon, as in right away.  That way we could resume partnerships with the students and teachers and families at Woodlawn and build up their enthusiasm with the spring… we could all together much more easily whip the garden back into shape, and have crops ready to harvest before school gets out. I’d also be able to recruit far more participants, engage more volunteers, and grow a significantly more food–and not just more food, but things like  tomatoes, beans, peppers and okra that are culturally appropriate to members of that community.  And my thought too was that if we could get that early start, we’d easily have time to organize another fundraiser, set a specific fundraising goal, and fill the gap on our own so we could still provide close to the full program.  To start things six weeks earlier would require less than $2,000 in fundraising on the neighborhood’s end–something we’ve done three times already.

I explained my concerns and suggestions at the meeting, nearly a month ago now, and in subsequent emails, and follow-up calls along the command chain–but have not heard anything back, yea or nay.  When last I checked in with the Community Gardens office, both of the staff people I know have to interview for their jobs this next week, and I wonder the degree to which this transition may be a contributing factor.

So there we have it…good ol’ Portland spring, true to form: blue skies out of one window, hailstorm out the other. The bees are back, the birds are singing, every day seems to uncover some long-forgotten color and scent. It’s blissfully warm in the sun and shiver-frigid in the shade.  But the days are longer every day.  Slowly and surely, things are growing out there.


Open Letter to Portland Parks Commissioner Nick Fish

18 Mar

Dear Commissioner Fish,

In your tenure as Commissioner of Portland Parks and Recreation, you’ve been an unprecedented champion of Community Gardens: you’ve convened resources, secured funding, focused on efficiency, and boosted our public profile, reaping tremendous support and enthusiasm.

Most importantly, you’ve been a consistently vocal proponent of the Children’s Gardening Program, speaking at our fundraisers, assuring participants and supporters that our critically important work will continue on.  Notwithstanding the remarkable influx of energy and progress around Community Gardens, the Children’s Gardening Program needs your help more desperately than ever.  While our founding organizations—Portland Community Gardens and Friends of Portland Community Gardens—go through major transitions and re-development, the hundreds of children anxious to return to the garden this spring are falling through the cracks. A garden, much like the developing minds of young students, suffers precipitously from a hiatus of attention and care; the work required to maintain the garden (let alone the program therein) is a mere fraction of what it would take to restore it after a year of disuse.

At our most recent fundraiser last September, a teacher with whom I work asked frankly whether the Children’s Gardening Program would continue to face its perennial funding crisis.  You looked both of us in the eye and promised that my position as Children’s Gardening Coordinator would not go unfunded again this year.  Commissioner Fish, I am challenging you to keep this promise—but I am challenging myself as well.  I am confident that this program, if redeveloped in tandem with its founding supporters, is a model capable of providing quality, consistent, and equitable access to gardening opportunities for children and youth, cultivating a generation of community gardeners and leaders, and strengthening neighborhoods and food security in the process.  Not only that—I am confident that if Woodlawn develops as pilot site, we can expand educational programming at school community gardens throughout Portland, supported by neighbors and local businesses and providing fair access to and authority on a subject which many schools and families struggle to explore and master on their own.

The budget for the Children’s Gardening Program has not yet exceeded $20,000, a minimal sum considering the number of people impacted and the lifelong values and skills acquired through participation. With the security enabled by such seed money this year, the Children’s Gardening Program will continue to build upon the tremendous momentum in place, working in partnership with our founders to ensure that our effort to furnish sustainable education can itself be kept up over time. Without your help, however, the garden will remain locked and fallow this year—and that fence won’t stop anyone when the raspberries and strawberries ripen in the first weeks of summer.  Our seed library will expire, our carefully crafted habitat will decline, and the tremendous hope, pride and enthusiasm surrounding the garden will dissipate with the rest. Hundreds of pounds of food will go unharvested, years of effort atrophied.

Participants and volunteers remain hopeful, despite our tenuous situation.  We will be out in the garden this Sunday, rain or shine, planting peas and spinach, beets and carrots. The soil is ready, the tools and the laborers at hand; the students are eager and ready to learn and get to work.  We need your help to see our crops through to harvest. I hope you’ll join us in this investment in the future, and sow the seeds for a new generation of community gardeners.

Sincerely,

Mara Reynolds

 

[p.s.  That's right, folks: Sunday, 1-4, rain or shine!  Hope to see you there, and thanks for all of your support!]

 

Calling all Gardeners!

8 Mar Dahlias

The time has come for action. Spring is fast upon us, and prospects for the Children’s Gardening Program at the Woodlawn Community Garden are dim but brightening.

Last week I had a long but great meeting with the Chair of the Board of Directors of Friends of Portland Community Gardens–the organization which helped found the Children’s Program and has historically been the chief fiscal agent for it.

It was great to sit down and talk honestly about where the 25-year-old non-profit organization stands, where they’re headed, and how the Children’s Gardening Program fits into their agenda. We agreed, I think, that although the present situation is somewhat dire (yes, they’re 25 years old and still working on a phone number, current website, brochures;  their members could be counted on your hands and they can’t really address educational demands for now), it is also an opportunity to rebuild properly from the ground up.

And she encouraged me to approach Portland Parks Commissioner Nick Fish and ask him to follow through on the promise he made at the last Stone Soup fundraiser at Firehouse that my position would not go unfunded again this year. He secured $125,000 for building new community gardens this year (to fulfill the extraordinarily ambitious promise of 1,000 new plots by 2012), but hasn’t made any mention of the Children’s Gardening Program.  I’ve been somewhat wary call him on it–it’s really awkward to have to ask for your own salary. But I don’t think anyone could argue I’m in it for the money.  And if I don’t ask and be specific, I suppose I can’t expect much.

The way I see it, even with the cash infusion they’re a long way off from filling 1,000 new garden plots by 2012 (that’s less than 10 months away and there’s no count on the website!). Especially considering there’s still only one permanent full-time staff position at Community Gardens–and they’re rehiring right now.

Last year, I worked with as many as 200 students per week in the Woodlawn Community Garden.  Some of the oldest had been in the garden longer than I had–throughout their entire lives at Woodlawn School–while the youngest were just learning to walk and speak.

If we can’t build 1,000 new plots, can’t we at least maintain and develop our relationships with these hundreds of young community gardeners and in the process properly equip them with the lifelong skills, knowledge and resources that will enable them to start gardens at home and be leaders in their communities?

To my knowledge the program’s budget has not yet exceeded $20,000–and there were two staff people then.  Times are tight, to be sure, but this is program represents an extremely sound investment. It’s an affordable, long-term asset–and more importantly, an achievable goal.

So my tactic on this front for now is to:

  • Rally the troops! Last year’s participants, volunteers, anyone interested in getting involved;
  • Clarify what we want and what we’re able to commit to. Last year about 1/3 of Woodlawn School students accessed the garden as part of their school day–can we get everyone involved this year? And we raised $5,000 last year, 40% of the budget–I know we can do even more this year if we set our minds to it;
  • Present a coordinated ask to the Commissioner. Let’s be organized, consistent, and overwhelming. No one can speak better to the critical importance of Children’s Gardening Education than those of you who have been or hope to become involved–share details of how the program has impacted your neighborhood and family; envision what our fair city would be like if every community garden had such programming.

I am pretty confident that if we have enough seed money to tide us through this season while our supporting organizations refocus and get in gear, we can rebuild the program as a pilot, with the Friends and Community Gardens office (vs. alongside them), and design a model that builds community and food security though equitable access to garden-based education, is predominantly self-sufficient, and can be adopted by other communities and expanded to other sites.

(Why do I still feel like the little girl in The Secret Garden?)

So I’ve written a letter which will soon be going out to every participant whose contact info I have.  In the mean time, I encourage you to read it, share it, and follow through with some contact.

All the tools and parts are on the table, it’s time to start building something!  If you’d like to join the team, be in touch.

Marching Forth

4 Mar

February is such a tease. Every year, I somehow forget that the bulk of winter is AFTER the new year, and am a fool for the first sunny day. It’s probably good I’m stuck indoors for the time being while the sky drips freezing gray; if it were sunny or warm outside, there would be little to keep me out of the dirt and in front of the computer. For now, it’s a bit premature for growth spurts, impending though they may be. The crocuses seem to have withdrawn their earlier bold statements; the daffodils remain tight-lipped. But the branches on every tree turn more colorful and textured with each day, and I believe today is the last until Halloween that it’s going to be dark before six.

Last I wrote I was about to attend the MercyCorps orientation for small business people… it was interesting, and a good resource, but they don’t have much experience with developing social or hybrid business models, and don’t fund non-profit efforts.  Fortunately, enough has happened in other fronts to keep me distracted…

I met up with Stacey at the Sideyard 1, and here are some pics of what the space is looking like–she’s put a lot of work into it since we visited last summer:

This former bathroom will serve as a storage space and mud-room. Look! A place to hose down kids! Or at least their boots. Stacey was so proud of the giant beet she painted on the floor–adorable!Then we have the kitchen space, also with a fresh coat of paint–so it’s not quite set up either.  And yes, that’s the periodic table of vegetables on the wall. 

Last indoors is the odd former bedroom, which if we clean up right could be a nice indoor teaching space for cold and rainy days, and potentially a great spot to display student work, photos and some of our goods. I can just picture the jars of tomatoes, the tinctures and salves and tea blends, science-fair-style displays, paintings, recipe books, t-shirts, packages of seeds…a chalkboard!?

Moving on…Here are the chickens, all grown up and soon to meet their new sisters.

This is the area Stacey is offering up to share… I’m a little concerned about the giant old apple tree, but I’m sure we’ll make do.

This front hill-side patch was where we picked squash for our pizza last summer.  I think it’ll look great covered in nasturtium and cucumbers this year.  And I love the painted window frame for a sign–Rebuilding Center, here I come!

This is the adjacent area where Stacey will be growing her main crops for restaurants around town.  In the background you can see the hoop house and the sheltered prep station.  To the left in this picture is the building with the kitchen and classroom areas, and soon there will be a large sheltered area with picnic tables.

I’m really excited about all the potential of this space–it’ll be such a big difference to have a fully stocked kitchen (not to mention the bathroom) on site; to work with chickens; to have my own indoor teaching space; a sink outside! At the same time though I’m trying to be realistic and pace myself.  I don’t exactly have any savings, and the business plan is emerging primarily as a byproduct of the presented opportunity.  I’m not that familiar with the land or the neighborhood yet, and don’t want to make assumptions about turnout…and I’m still not finished at Woodlawn.

So my thought for this year is to try a once or twice-weekly Supper Club class. (In the summer I’m totally hosting the Breakfast Club. Yes.) Students would help plan and plant crops, raise them to harvest, and the latter half of every class would be in the kitchen, where we would work on either a whole meal or an entree using ingredients we grew.  Students leave each entree session with a course ready to take home and eat with their families.  On meal nights, maybe once per month, families would be invited at the end of class to share a feast featuring the student’s work.  (Wouldn’t everyone love an edible piano recital?)  The kids could compile a book of recipes and growing tips as they go. [Would people sign their kids up for this?  What would a reasonable cost be?] There’s a lot of critical details to sort out with pricing, liability, etc. but I think it’s a reasonable point from which to grow, eventually offering similar classes focused on flowers, seeds, food preservation, medicinal plants, garden art, etc….

 

Busy Bee

24 Feb

Despite February’s early taste of sunshine that annually teases us around here, winter remains steadfast. There’s talk of snow tomorrow, and I’m warmed by the smell of a day’s worth of simmering beef broth permeating the house.

Last Friday I had my first experience volunteering at the Children’s Healing Art Project. I had a great time and got a good taste of what it will be like to help out there: for my first task, I crawled through the giant paint-splattered cardboard fort in the middle of the Art Factory on a recon mission for paintbrushes, pom-poms, pens, glitter-glue bottles, etc.  I helped wash out old paint dishes, clean up work tables, and finally hot-glue-gunned into place the PVC-pipe extensions which transformed one of those plastic Flintstones-type kid’s cars into a stretch limo version of itself.

I realize that it will likely require a lot of volunteer hours there to reach a point where I can really start gleaning useful information that I can implement within my own project, but I think my volunteering there will prove to be an invaluable experience and resource over time.

On Saturday was the second big session of the School Garden Coordinator Certificate Training course that I’m taking.  In the morning we got a lengthy presentation about community organizing, and in the afternoon we did a tour of three different successful school gardens in Southeast Portland.  The information about community organizing was interesting and well-presented, and something I wish I’d had any training on from the get-go. I think a lot of it was pretty common-sense,  but it was helpful to see it presented in a concise and user-friendly manner.  I also really appreciated the tips on how to keep meetings focused and productive.  Again the focus was specifically on school gardens (targeted at a particular school’s population and based on state and federal mandates vs. the more neighborhood-based and non-standardized example of Community Gardens’ model), and again I noticed a pattern: reliance upon one or a few nearly-full-time volunteers (i.e. teachers and/or parents) coordinating the efforts of a de-facto non-profit organization to be powered by grants, donations and sponsorships on a school community level, in perpetuity.  As much as I’m behind the efforts of school gardening and would love to see one up and running at every school ASAP, this strikes me as not only an unreasonable but untenable method of attack. For being all about introducing people to “sustainability,” it’s a completely unsustainable approach. No one else seemed interested in that discussion.

In the afternoon we visited Abernethy‘s Garden of Wonders, Sunnyside Environmental School, and the Vestal Community Garden.  Interestingly, all of these sites presently have funded staff.  To my understanding, Abernethy’s is funded through the summer camps they host at the garden in addition to the foundational and grant support they receive from institutions.  SES has a very proactive PTSA which works year-round to fund part-time garden and sustainability coordinator positions (which to my knowledge have had relatively high turnover in recent years). Vestal’s coordinator is in her second and final AmeriCorps term, and reported spending about 25% of her full-time position on grant-writing and fund-raising. They are all functioning well and doing exemplary work, but each also seems to be in a rather exceptional position relative to other schools, can could not readily be expanded.

Again what I walked away with at the end of the day was the conclusion that what I’ve been going for with the Children’s Gardening Program and what I hope to do moving forward is fundamentally different from what school gardens are required or able to be.  Since there are virtually no content or curriculum standards for wellness, food or sustainability in our public school system, any gardening activity taking place within a public school is by definition superfluous and therefore can only be justified by tying back to the scripted mandates in tangential subjects such as math and science.  Though school gardens have equal capacity to inspire wonder and establish personal connections to one’s food, environment and community, they will be forever tied to teaching to the test and providing quantifiable metrics.  And again, while I believe that even if you have to teach to a test a garden can be one of your most powerful and useful tools, I’m realizing that what excites me about learning and teaching in the garden is its capacity to draw such experiences away from the confines of worksheets and tests and scores and present learning as a constant, proactive, and deeply meaningful skill. My interest is in using the garden as a tool for inspiring and enabling learning which transcends grade levels, subjects, disciplines, and learning styles, and that is understandably contrary to the clearly delineated formula employed in most schools.

To that end, I started drafting a set of founding principles for whatever this is I’m about to be undertaking.  I hesitate to publish them in this early incubator phase, but I am also curious what others think and whether they seem like legitimate and reasonable points from which to move forward.  So, keeping in mind there are many edits to come…..these are the notions that constitute the foundation of my efforts:

  • Examination and exploration of humans’ relationship to the natural world and participation in the life cycle and process of one’s food are fundamental aspects of human experience; we consider providing access to such opportunities a priority for all members of our community.
  • Farms, gardens and kitchens are amongst the most richly dynamic and fundamental learning environments available to humans, particularly to those living and growing up in urban settings.
  • Ability to extend ones “classroom” out to the broader environment, perceive one’s community as both peers and teachers, and to participate in the maintenance of one’s well-being are life skills best established early.
  • The most powerful and profound actions we can take to restore and preserve the well-being of both the Earth and our selves include active participation in feeding ourselves, engagement with our surrounding communities, and addressing the manner in which we raise, educate and engage children within our community.
  • Our community values the possession and sharing of knowledge about: organic gardening practices, land and animal husbandry; environmental responsibility and stewardship; food traditions; and related topics. We believe that the preservation and perpetuation of such knowledge and skills (particularly amongst youth) is best achieved in an inclusive, community-oriented context including myriad pedagogical styles, academic disciplines and individual skill-levels in a hands-on and creatively inspired manner.
  • Children (and probably adults) not only deserve but require free play and inquiry in a natural environment, and all children learn well when they may express, engage and explore in a dynamic, stimulating and welcoming space among a diverse group of peers.
  • Our community possesses the capacity and capability to equitably furnish access to the above-mentioned opportunities and resources while creating meaningful and supportive employment for leaders within this field.

AHhh.. It feels really nice to see that all nice and organized (you should see the page of notes I transcribed it from!). I think it’s a good starting point.  It’s not a mission or a vision statement or a thesis or a whatever, per se. But it’s everything I know and believe in, however verbose and royally pluralized. I want to dwell on that more, but that’s about five years’ worth of daydreaming finally articulated in a few hundred words and I think I need a brief step back.  And probably some outside input.

Last Sunday we had our first Community Work Party of the year.  Not too surprisingly, I suppose, none of the families showed up, but three friends/volunteers and I did manage to get a lot of work done in the cold.  I think the fact no other gardeners showed up stems from a lot of things–it was really chilly and threatened to rain, it was the middle of President’s Day weekend (oops), and perhaps most significantly I’d not really been able to be consistently present and visible in the garden to remind people.  All the families I ran into–even a young boy who recognized me on the bus last week after working with me in the garden once or twice last spring–everyone displayed a whole lot of excitement and eagerness to have a chance to get back in the garden, while I spoke to them. But that’s difficult to sustain when you only see them by chance.

Anyway, here are a few pics of what we were able to accomplish:

Before & After:

This was mostly Matt’s work.  He placed tags next to the crocuses so we can potentially dig them up when they are dormant next year and revamp the whole area by fully removing the crab grass and re-establishing healthier plantings of the herbs, strawberries and bulbs.

Matt also got to work cleaning up the so-called beds surrounding the portable classrooms by the garden, spreading some of our fresh compost over the weed-ridden gravel (see the right-hand area in the picture?) and mixing in a bunch of sunchokes we found sprouting that should add some great color during the summer.

My task for the day was cleaning and organizing the tool shed (check out all the seeds I swept up!)

Forest and Liz, two of our other trusty volunteers, stuck it out through the cold and rain and gave our aging strawberry beds a much-needed face lift.

Perhaps most interesting of all, I discovered not one but THREE distinct patches where someone had mysteriously come in and planted a bunch of daffodils.  See them poking up in the picture below?  On the one hand it’s kind of the coolest present I think I  (or the garden) ever have received.  On the other hand, this patch for example was planted right in front of the shed, in the path of where the door swings open. The garden never fails to be full of uncanny surprises!

Tomorrow I’m going up to the Sideyard 1 to scope out the location close-up, see and help out with some of the renovations Stacey has made since our field trip there last summer, and talk about what we are both envisioning taking place there this summer.  Tonight I’m going to MercyCorps Northwest‘s I.D.A. Grant orientation, so I’m sure  I’ll be brimming with words and ideas again soon!

It’s official

18 Feb

I’m sitting in direct sunlight.  The other day, I saw a rhododendron in full, pink-blanketed bloom, the maples are flowering, and camellias are leading the march for the spring parade. It’s all about to explode in the best of all possible ways.

I began my classes last week with Growing GardensSchool Garden Coordinator Certificate Training course.  For the most part it’s targeted at folks planning on building a garden from scratch on school grounds (and thus exclusively for that school), and has less emphasis on long-term program development, sustainability, or community involvement than I would hope.  But beyond reiterating most everything of what I know about the myriad uses and benefits of garden education, however, the first session at least provided lots of good examples for streamlining and presenting the information in a logical and motivating manner, and that was really useful.  It’s so easy for me to wax poetic and philosophical about all of this, and get very abstract, so it’s great to find tools for synthesizing that into a page that shows folks how the money they give you will result in lasting social and environmental change.

The session I attended last night was specific to guidelines for building gardens on Portland Public School property and using the produce in school cafeterias.  In this case, what was reiterated to me was my relief and gratitude that the garden I’ve worked at and the program I’ve done has managed to have a close partnership with the school without being subject to its rules and regulations.  For example, one design pointer was to avoid plants that attract bees, lest a child dies from a sting. Wouldn’t a reasonable alternative (rather than completely undermining lessons related to attracting pollinators, the critical role of bees in our food system, and the dangerous mysteries of colony collapse disorder, not to mention healthy habitats and ecosystems) be to equip teachers with an epi-pen and show them how to use it?  We can do that, can’t we? Bees are everywhere, and we need more of them!

Similarly, when I asked whether there is protocol I should know about with respect to students snacking on food in the the garden (vs. after being processed through the cafeteria) or taking it back to their classes to eat, I was met with wide eyes and a slowly shaking head: oh nooooooooo nononononono. All it would take is one case of E. Coli, I learned, to stop all school gardening efforts in the state.  Considering we are an organic garden that doesn’t typically use manure, let alone un-composted manure,  and don’t have any livestock nearby, I’m pretty dang sure it’s safe to pick and eat some broccoli flowers without washing them–heck I do it all the time, and this is probably one of the most meaningful and lasting experiences kids have in the garden.  (For the record, I assure you any snackable that’s come in direct contact with dirt gets a thorough scrub or rinse before being eaten, though I’m not all that convinced of the sanitizing power of running water anyway). To discontinue the practice of snacking in the garden would actually require me to  discourage kids from actively picking, eating and relishing in the delicious and incomparable experience that is eating something within seconds of picking it (which is kind of the whole point, right?), and relegate it instead to the blaring noises, glaring lights and bleachy smells of the cafeteria lunch line, where nothing tastes as good. I can recognize the reasoning, but I just don’t see the sense.  It’s probably some of the cleanest food available.

Furthermore, there’s increasing evidence that it’s good for you to get dirty–and that’s not just getting a little dirt under your nails, it’s ingesting the bacteria in dirt–and it’s found only in dirt. It’s been shown to decrease anxiety and improve learning capabilities, and early exposure to the bacteria found in dirt has also been linked to stronger immune systems.  This is of course not to say we should go snack on dirt or stop washing our food or our hands altogether, but I think it’s worth remembering how our immune systems work–like muscles; they are strengthened by small, persistent doses of effort and resistance.  This is why it’s a baby’s first instinct to shove everything in his or her mouth–that’s the immune system, building itself.  A good analogy is wind for plants; try growing a strong healthy tree in a greenhouse with no storms.

Anyway, enough of that.

The most exciting news of late is that I had brunch yesterday with my friend Stacey from Sideyard Farm.  As some of you may know or remember, last summer’s younger kid’s gardening group took a field trip to the Sideyard, where we got to explore the grounds, feed the chickens, help pick veggies and herbs, and make delicious pizzas and salads on-site with our harvest.  It was a really wonderful experience for everyone–you can check out pictures here and on Stacey’s website (above).  Completely unbeknown to me, however, Stacey was really inspired and motivated by our visit, and has made it a goal for her 2011 season to begin hosting kid’s gardening classes on-site and adapting her space to accommodate this. She just expanded to a second lot about 20 blocks away from her first in NE Portland, and she intends to raise goats, chickens, rabbits, bees and turkeys in addition to fruits, veggies, flowers and herbs.  Did I mention there are fully equipped tool sheds, as well as produce prep and kitchen facilities on both sites?  And additional storage, dining and gathering spaces?

So while I’ve been running along all winter mulling on how I could create the dream educational gardening program if I just had a bit of land (flashback: The Secret Garden: “Please sir, may I have a bit of earth?” whoa), she’s been shaping up a space perfect for providing the kind of exposure and accessibility we both envision, and thinking to herself: “Now I just need to find someone who knows how to run this kind of program, and is good with kids…”

BOOM.

We are both really eager to create access and exposure to opportunities for young kids to engage with farm and garden environments–specifically in an urban, community-oriented setting, spanning the entirety of our season, and fully integrated from seed to table.  The focus is less on academic standards, curriculum, lessons or activities, but on hands-on exposure, experience, and engagement within a community. It could be a place where it’s possible to integrate (i.e. pick and choose among) a lot of the principles found not only in public schools, but also those from private, parochial, charter, home, place-based, free- and un-schooling environments–creating a common space for students with these diverse experiential backgrounds, and hopefully knocking down some of the needless lines between these pedagogical styles as well. I also see it as an effective means of addressing Nature Deficit Disorder, and addressing community-wide food- and wellness- related educational needs that are not necessarily adequately (or appropriately) addressed in modern times by either schools or private homes.

The possibilities are suddenly wide, wide open, and the season’s just getting started.

So now I’m signing up for free small business counseling, looking into orientations and grants and have the storming-est brain I’ve had for a good while.  I am truly thrilled, grateful and eager for what this year has in store. {thank you, universe! thank you.}

Up and coming in that department, I’ve got my first shift volunteering with C.H.A.P. tomorrow, where my friend works as Art Factory Coordinator–and if you spend any time with kids in Portland, you should check it out!  $5 per kid per hour and they hand you a smock and set you loose with all the art supplies you could ask for. Well your kid, not you. At the orientation, the director told us how he has a couch where he sends parents to a time out if they won’t let their kids get messy or create they way they want to.  And I realized: I want to do with mud and food what CHAP is doing with paint and glitter. I really hope that my volunteer experience there, in addition to being a great way to spend my time and contribute my energy, will provide some useful insight into the hybrid entrepreneurial non-profit structure employed there so successfully.

Also! Don’t forget, this coming Sunday from 1-4 at the Woodlawn Children’s Community Garden, the first Community Work Party of the year! I sure hope this sun sticks around for it.

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