Lessons from a Learning Garden
Lowell Elementary School in Watertown, Ma
Our community of educational gardens is growing. I would like to welcome our new guests, Meghan O’Connell and Victoria Thatcher. They are here today to share their Learning Garden story at the Lowell Elementary School in Watertown, Ma. If you have a story about an Outdoor Classroom, Children’s Garden and/or Backyard Learning Lab please join us at Outdoor-Classrooms.com and grow the community! ——
When I first set out with the idea to create a Learning Garden at a local Watertown elementary school, I had no idea how much time, energy, and planning it would require!
I was fortunate enough to have received a grant from the Outdoor Nation, and as an after-school instructor at Lowell Elementary, I had a great network of supporters that jumped on board with the garden idea. Over the course of a few months, a lead garden team formed, consisting of me, an after-school teacher; a Watertown Community Gardens board member; a local gardening expert and community organizer; and a preschool teacher.
In April, after presenting a required 5-year plan to the school committee, we received approval to begin building the garden. This has made the Lowell School Learning Garden the first officially approved school garden project in Watertown! We cleared the ground and began constructing fencing and two 3’ x 12’ garden beds with the help of many of the school parents. My after-school students were excited to be involved, too, and they got to plant the beds with Julia’s class too. The initial idea was to plant a “pizza garden” so we included vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, as well as a variety of herbs: oregano, basil, thyme, chives, and rosemary.
Taking care of the garden was pretty simple at first. We planted the garden at the end of May so I had almost the whole month of June to work on it with my students. We gave the plants plenty of water, and even planted a couple of half-barrels with donated strawberries and some nifty rattlesnake and purple pole beans. A few of my kids worked on constructing twig-trellis ladders, which are now bursting with beans!
I had the chance to show off our new garden at the after-school Jubilee celebration. My students’ parents were given a tour and they admired the garden, knowing how hard we worked to create it. Then they would ask me, “Who’s going to take care of it over the summer?” Well, I told them with a smile, that they would! If they wanted to. I had a sign-up sheet ready to go for the “Summer Garden Club” and was able to recruit about 10 families that day.
We also presented our new Lowell School Learning Garden at the school PTO picnic with a ribbon cutting ceremony. Although it didn’t go quite as planned, as the picnic atmosphere was much more busy and chaotic than I had expected; therefore, making it difficult to hold everyone’s attention, we still managed to get another handful or two of parents to sign up with interest for the garden.
We organized an Orientation Meeting at the end of the school year for our parent volunteers, attended by about 10 volunteers, some with their kids. We asked interested volunteers to “adopt” the garden for a week at a time and made sure each week was covered by at least two families. Although we did not fill up the schedule right away, over the next few weeks, other volunteers signed up by e-mail until by August we actually had more volunteers than we needed!
The June orientation meeting introduced volunteers to what would be involved in caring for the garden over the summer, but wasn’t adequate for the week to week instruction needed to keep the garden going all summer. Most of the volunteers have little or no gardening experience with vegetables. So, what has been crucial to the garden’s success during the summer has been the Sunday Evening Garden Meet-Ups organized by the garden adviser/coordinator each week.
The Sunday evening meet-ups have enabled us to maintain the garden optimally all summer as well as maximize our harvests. Each Sunday the garden adviser gives volunteers and their kids an orientation. It includes the contents of our storage box – water spigot key, gate keys, tools, watering cans, and the Garden Binder. (The Garden Binder has information about watering, weeds, pests, a contact list, the summer care schedule, and a page for each week where volunteers record who did what when. We tried sharing these documents via a Google Doc folder, but people don’t seem to use it.) It also includes updating volunteers on what and how to water that week, since the needs of the garden change weekly. The garden adviser/coordinator also updates volunteers on what can be harvested for their own use. Since every aspect of a garden is a learning opportunity, teaching and learning are major components of these meet ups.
An unexpected surprise has been how popular the Sunday meet-ups have been with our volunteer parents. They like being able to combine their gardening with a play date for their kids (the school playground is close to the garden). And because many of them have never actually met, they enjoy the opportunity to make new connections through the garden. This is right in line with one of our stated goals –to build new connections in the Lowell School community.
As the most expert gardener on hand, Victoria ensures that we aren’t watering too much, or too little, and developed a plan for the harvesting of our various crops. I wanted the volunteers to be able to share in their harvest together, but it was tricky because everything comes to fruit at different times! We decided to plan a Fall Harvest Potluck Meal to do this so Victoria recruited volunteers each week to become our dedicated keepers of each veggie or herb. They have been preserving the dried herbs or have cooked the vegetables into a meal to keep frozen for our Fall Potluck.
There, of course, have been some difficulties along the way- luckily, no major problems to speak of, but lots of little things to tweak here and there. Overall, the fact that this school Learning Garden was a mere idea last winter and has already come to full fruition this spring and summer is nothing short of a miracle! This is the next big challenge we are facing: who will continue to take care of the garden and how can we better incorporate it into the school curriculum? I’m excited to return to Lowell as a part-time volunteer this fall to keep the after-school kids involved in the garden, but it will take much more than just my one or two afternoons a week to keep the garden growing. We have an extremely supportive administration so I am hopeful. Only time will tell…
For more information contact
Meghan O’Connell; LLG Volunteer Coordinator
Victoria Thatcher; LLG Garden Manager