Last year I took two writing classes at Hugo House. It was one of those “when the student is ready, the teacher will come” moments. I loved being in class again and really liked my teacher. Her class, “Shapes of Stories,” had us experimenting in lots of forms, including a braid, a collage and one she calls “the faucet.” This is my collage.
Committee chair, Owls in the Garden
I lead the 3-person garden committee. My husband built the new shed five years ago when our eldest daughter started kindergarten. We run an edible garden. Everything planted must be edible. The school mascot is an owl so we call ourselves the Owls in the Garden Committee. It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? I am a senior vice president at the firm Scoffly & Terminus. My daughters are six and eleven. My eldest is named for me, Evelyn Grace. Our home is on Phinney Ridge.
This year we are making a major change in garden management. For years, we have recruited volunteers, mostly mothers, one per classroom, who are each assigned a garden bed. We distribute instructions about how to access the shed and hoses. We explain that the beds are split, two classes per structure, and marked by wooden signs with class numbers painted on.
Typically, we tell volunteers to plant a winter garden and a spring garden. We also recruit some summer moms who take 2-week shifts to water daily and then harvest in August. They drop the fresh produce off at the Greenwood Food Bank. Recently our contact at the Food Bank moved on, and we decided to end that relationship.
Going forward, we are eliminating the idea of one garden bed per class. The volunteers don’t know enough and the entire space looks disheveled, especially in spring. The lettuces have begun to rot, the onion shoots are sky high and the kale is all bloomed out.
The committee and I are establishing a new garden curriculum designed for kindergartners through third graders. We know that the fourth and fifth graders are just too busy. I’m working on the email that outlines our new plan. It needs to go out to the volunteers next week. We will not be needing the majority of them anymore. Most of them are beginner gardeners anyway. On Garden Clean-up Day in September, one of the newer volunteers even called the straw that we scatter on the paths hay.
I corrected her. “Hay is for horses.”
A volunteer mom
Jack started Kennedy Elementary in third grade because the school we were at was such a disaster. This school had a good reputation for Special Ed, and inclusion particularly, so we took the necessary steps to change programs and schools. As he started third grade, I needed to get the lay of the land, meet some people and convey to him that I cared about his new class. So I signed up to be the Garden Liaison. My mom had a flower garden and I’ve always wanted to learn how things grow in the Northwest, so I thought, “Why not?”
My mom had a flower garden and I’ve always wanted to learn how things grow in the Northwest.
That first September I asked a few questions to the committee people who were pretty vague in their answers. Then I discovered the Seattle Tilth Hot Line and they told me that fava beans and garlic will grow in winter here. Seems miraculous, doesn’t it? I always thought warmth and sunshine were the essential growing ingredients. I was learning.
I went to the good garden store, bought the seeds, bulbs and a big bag of compost. I read up on how to plant, and the teacher, Ms. A, and I scheduled an early November planting day. Then I took the time off work. Ms. A and I had agreed I’d go out into the garden with groups of about six. The first group and I arrived in the garden and opened the shed. The combination to the lock is OWLS and you wouldn’t believe how much enthusiasm third graders show around opening one little lock. We got out some hand rakes and prepared the soil. We spread a layer of compost on top, and one girl leaned over our little plot and stuck her entire forearms in the dirt, smiling from ear to ear.
We examined the garlic bulbs to see which side gets planted down, and checked out the fava bean seeds. Next we measured the right distance between the bulbs and the favas. Then we dug holes and buried our seeds. I did this with three more groups, and they all loved it. The last group got to water. Hands shot up when I asked who wants to help with the hose. I let them unlock the handle and water our plot. We had a little trouble sharing this final task without leaving a muddy mess but we worked it out. The kids call me “Jack’s Mom.”
“Jack’s Mom, it’s my turn!”
“OK, Kevin, please hand the hose to Will. He’s been waiting patiently.”
In the next couple of weeks, I never wanted to see things sprout so badly in my life. For Jack, I was determined that this garden would be a success and the kids would know me as the cool, outdoor mom who makes magic with seeds and dirt. During Christmas vacation we drove over to school to see if they had in fact come up. I peeled back the cloche cover that I’d recently covered the bed with. As I unzipped it, I saw them. Tiny green shoots sticking up out of brown soil. Elation! Utter joy! I was growing a garden with nine-year-olds.
I never wanted to see things sprout so badly in my life…the kids would know me as the cool, outdoor mom who makes magic with seeds and dirt.
As it grew, I heard from the Owls in the Garden Committee. I thought I might like to be on that committee later that year. They told us before winter break it’d be a very good idea to use the indoor Grow Labs, at the top of the staircase, as a teaching tool. So again I asked some questions about what’s best to plant, I bought the seeds and I arranged the time with the teacher. My nephew Jamie happened to be visiting so he came along and helped, and it was so nice to have Jack see his gorgeous, strapping cousin and me stroll into his class on our mission to plant seeds. Is there anything better than exploring nature with kids?
This time we planted arugula in little containers that would sprout under indoor lights. The kids especially loved writing their names with Sharpies on the masking tape that identified their little planters. Girls embellished with flowers. Then we spread the tiny seeds on paper towels, got the tips of our fingers wet and picked up a few. Some of the kids had trouble burying the seeds in those tiny little pots but Jamie and I helped them with the toothpicks and everybody succeeded.
When winter break came, the committee warned that things would now die in the Grow Labs with the week off. They advised we take our shoots home and water them. It was fun spreading all the little pots around my kitchen window and seeing all the kids’ names, and Jack helped me rotate and water. We were proud of those little arugula shoots.
With these little successes behind me I volunteered again to be a Garden Liaison when Jack started fourth grade. I had less time to volunteer this year but we did plant lettuces and kale that wintered over. On our fall planting day, I asked class: In the spring when all our lettuces have grown do you want to donate to the Food Bank or have a Salad Party?
Hands went up for a Salad Party. I kept my promise and scheduled a May date with Ms. A. We went over the details in email: we’d have one group harvest, one group wash the leaves in the cafeteria kitchen and one prep and serve the meal in our classroom.
I took half a day off work, went to Safeway and bought a bottle each of Ranch Dressing and Zesty Italian, three tomatoes, a red pepper and cucumbers. All organic. I brought my salad spinner, plates, forks and two knives to prep the veggies with. And my big wooden salad bowl and serving spoons.
Committee chair, Owls in the Garden
We’re putting the finishing touches on our curriculum. We will start inside with a lecture, followed by a short time in the garden, then a quiz. Seeds and Germination is first, followed by Planting and Weeding, then Containers and the Garden Ecosystem. Each of these is tied to a grade-level science unit and we emphasize mastery over the material.
Seeds and Germination is first, followed by Planting and Weeding, then Containers and the Garden Ecosystem. Each of these is tied to a grade-level science unit and we emphasize mastery over the material.
There are eleven K-3 classrooms at school. The three of us on the committee will split these. I will take four classrooms, Jeanie will also have four, and the newest committee member, Kate, gets three. We will go into classrooms the second week of October and follow a 4-week plan. We will utilize the indoor Grow Labs. In February our second 4-week plan commences. The first week of April, our final 4-week plan commences where we go outside again and plant the spring starts that I will purchase, with PTA funds.
The PTA obviously has its priorities mixed up.
Jeanie and I met with the principal who has agreed to our plan. I will make a presentation at the PTA next month. Unfortunately the garden is the fifth item on the agenda. I asked the PTA president to move me higher to the top, but she declined. Common Core, Bike to School Month, Talent Night and Treasurer’s Report all come before me. The PTA obviously has its priorities mixed up. I’ve also been composing the email for the current Garden Liaisons, and I’m almost ready to hit send.
A volunteer mom
I walked into school at 2:10 as planned. I carried a bulging, crinkly Pier 1 bag of supplies. I was welcomed by the teacher and class, and Jack came straight up to me with a big smile on his face. I know the kids of 216 pretty well by now from my volunteering, the field trips I’ve gone on and the time I brought in Jack’s assistance dog for them to meet.
Ms. A and I reviewed our plan. She had written the names of three groups of students on the whiteboard. The first group would go into the garden and harvest. The second group would wash the leaves and spin them dry in my little salad spinner. The next group would help toss and serve after I prepped the rest of the ingredients. Ms. A had even found a story about a girl and an apple orchard for me to read to them at the end.
Outside with the first group, three of them sprang to the shed when I asked them to go get three buckets. At our garden bed, they were perplexed on how to harvest. They tried to pull the leaves off upward, when it’s a downward motion you need. I showed them how to gently hold the stalk at the top with one hand and pull the leaves off with the other. We then had an impromptu story about our dinosaur kale which had grown abundantly. “I know! I know! You see this leaf?” one boy said. “Dinosaurs planted this during the Jurassic period and it survived the giant asteroid! You should call it the asteroid plant!” All of a sudden we had three huge buckets full of leaves.
I took the next group to wash and prep. Give a kid access to a cafeteria kitchen that every other day of the year is strictly off-limits, and they’re empowered. Give them a huge sink full of cold water, a stack of purple and green leaves to rinse and they’ll stand there transfixed with their hands plunged in, making patterns with swirling leaves.
The spinner, though, was the big draw. It’s the circular plunger you smother with your hand and pump over and over. You hear the satisfying sound of the bowl speeding around in endless circles, flicking the water off, unseen. You press the tiny black button to stop it abruptly. They clustered around it impatiently. “It’s my turn, Kevin!” When he didn’t budge three kids looked up me pleadingly, the unfairness of the world leaping off their faces.
Back upstairs the last group helped me set up as the aide and I chopped the veggies (no knives for fourth graders!). There was lots of interest in opening the bottles of Ranch and Zesty Italian. Then we served and ate. When you see kids with Ranch smothered all around their mouth or copiously spread over that notoriously hard-to-chew raw kale stepping up for seconds, you know you have a success on your hands.
Then Ms. A told me I could read the apple story. They kids gathered round me like they were preschoolers.
Committee chair, Owls in the Garden
This evening I met Jeanie and Kate at the Beaujolais Lounge to finalize our plan. We agreed to finish the compost bin in June, take the worms home and meet back in the garden in August to prep the beds for September.
“Here’s to our launch of curriculum-based gardening!” I said as we clinked glasses.
“I stopped by the shed to take inventory. The spreadsheet is updated, by the way,” I said as I put down my glass. “I just can’t wait until next year when tomatoes are grouped on the south side, peas and beans in the center and lettuces on the north side. It’s such a mess right now! The beds look like a tornado hit them!”
“I saw you sent the email to the volunteers,” said Jeanie.
“What a relief,” I said. “I iterated on that draft to get the wording right, but then I ran out of time, and frankly, I lost interest.”
“Did you see that email from the one mom who replied?” asked Jeanie.
“Oh,” I laughed. “From Ms. Annandale’s class?”
“Yes. She said our plan lacks transparency,” said Jeanie.
“What a nerve. You know something? Maybe her gardening skills lack transparency. Maybe she should learn how to grow vegetables first, then she can be on this side of transparency!”
“But didn’t she also say that the kids had a salad party?” Kate asked. “I thought that was a good idea.”
“Our repurposed containers entered into Talent Night competition is a much better idea,” I said.
A volunteer mom
I got an email from the Owls in the Garden Committee today. The head lady said they’re changing the way the garden is run. It will be curriculum-based, for K-3 only. Because the fourth and fifth graders are too busy. Too busy for what? Nature? Learning where your food comes from? Eating a meal with your friends that you planted and grew?
I reread the email and then I got it. We classroom volunteers are just not needed anymore. Truthfully I was done with volunteering in the garden anyway. I already knew this would be my second and final year.
I wrote them back. “It’s been fun volunteering. Just so you know, we cleaned out our bed (Room 216) and we laid the stalks in the compost. The kids really enjoyed the salad party that they had voted on in the fall. We harvested, washed, prepped and ate a wonderful salad. Ms. A even had me read them a story about apple growing at the end. Really a success.
“Also, just pointing out, you’re aware that your announcement lacks transparency?”
After school Jack pulled a stack of handwritten cards out of his backpack and brought them over to me with a smile on his face. They were mostly white cardstock, some green and one salmon-colored one, folded once. They were written in marker, pencil and colored pencil. Many had pictures of a salad in a bowl, or even just tomatoes, cukes and a pepper. I read them on the living room floor and he stood over me, and we laughed. “These made my day!” I said to him and gave him a huge hug.
I’m pretty sure Ms. A had written a few phrases on the board like “time and effort” and “generous.” Sweet!
Handwritten thank you notes
To Blair, Thank you for your time with us in the garden! Also for the salad! My parents probly loved it! I didn’t love it because I don’t like salad. From Sadie 216
Thank you! By Khalid! Thank you for bringing a lot of stuff it was generous of you to bring ranch, and the spinner it was Excellent, delicious it was the best salad party ever I wish we could have another salad party Like this one Awesome! By. Khalid
Salad Party! Woooooooo! Hoooooooo! that salad Party was Delicious. Thank you for taking the time and effort to make this happen from, Kevin
SALAD: Salad Awesome Love Amazing Delicious. Dear Blair, thank you for the Fabulous Salad party that you took time and Effort our of you’re day. Thank you for making the garden in the first place. The salad was so good I had 2 plates! thanks! From: Sasha school: Kennedy to: Blair!
SALAD: Salad Awesome Love it so much Astanding Delicious. To Blair Thank you for the salad party It was so fun thanks so much from Emma
Thank you. Dear Blair, thank you Blair for the amazing salad Party. It must have been hard to put all of your Effort in to planning and helping us make that fabulous salad party. I love Kale and salad. Awesome choice of Ranch! P.S. What a cute dog you have! Annie
Thank you. By: Isaiah. Thank you for making us that salad and growing it in our garden. Thank you for using all your effort and all your time. The food,/salad was yummy fabulous and delicious. It was very generous and thoughtful. To: Blair from: Isaiah
Thank you so much for the excellent salad partay. Even though I don’t like salad or kale I still enjoyed it. Because I brang some home for my mom She love it She even had it for lunch! I tried some kale but I didn’t like it but I loved the tomatoes and the cucumbers the cucumbers tasted like crisp candy! Love, Genevieve