Monday, April 21, 2008

Teaching Teachers to Garden

Each year one of the groups I work with, D.C. Schoolyard Greening, holds a two-day workshop aimed at helping more teachers create gardens at their schools. This is the second year that we've held our hands-on session at the Washington Youth Garden in the National Arboretum. In the picture at left, Gilda Allen, of the D.C. Department of the Environment, Watershed Protection Division, leads a session in soil testing and composting.

This year we were lucky to have Judy Tiger, former executive director of Garden Resources of Washington, opening the session with some detailed advice on working with kids outdoors. Taking a group of 20 or more children into the garden is no easy trick. You can't just open the door and turn them loose. Judy has years of experience and lots of good tips for keeping kids focused--or at least not starting a riot.

Rule number one: Never let kids play with the garden hose. (Or maybe just once on a special occasion.) And a suggestion: Don't tell kids they are spreading compost. Tell them they are sprinkling "fairy dust."

Is it just my imagination, or are our teachers getting younger, smarter and more enthusiastic about this school gardening concept? We had about two dozen enroll this year. That's a great turnout, especially considering that in years past, the teachers were paid to be there.

We divided the group in two and they switched between two workshops in the morning--Gilda's on soil and composting and another on seed starting and transplanting. Claire Cambardella of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation brought in a homemade lunch of fresh, local ingredients (and even home-baked rolls). Then we were back in the field for two more workshops, garden maintenance and creating garden lesson plans.

Somehow I got tagged to handle the maintenance end. For an organic gardener that usually means talking about weeds. But I prefer to talk about how modern gardening is turning back the clock, rejecting pesticides and artificial fertilizers and reviving a more intimate relationship with nature and natural rhythms. In our scheme, maintenance is more about building great soil. Still, we give the teachers a very cool Japanese gardening tool that looks like a cross between a chef's knife and a martial arts weapon. It's just the thing for digging out weeds at the roots.

My partner this year in the maintenance division was Marti Goldstone who has spent the last nine years building an incredible garden at the Horace Mann Elementary School in Northwest D.C. Her group started with jack hammers and backhoes, digging up asphalt and concrete to make room for garden beds.

School gardens face special challenges since they're on vacation for much of the prime growing season. Still, Marti and her science teaching partner Louise Hill have managed to keep the garden growing year after after and now have integrated food preparation into the scheme, not an easy trick either when your school has no cooking facilities. But Marti says they may have licked that problem as well--plans for a small kitchen are on the drawing board.

We were experiencing a short heat wave this weekend and that brought all kinds of visitors to the garden. Some are starting their gardening at a very early age. Maybe we are looking at the garden teachers of the future.


De in D.C. said...

Do you know of any similar education programs for teachers in the 'burbs? I'd love to start school gardens in Fairfax Co. but think that the school board would need some more pressuring than just one crunchy mom.

Christine said...

what is the name of the Japanese tool you mentioned?

Ed Bruske said...

De, I've forwarded your query to the chairperson of D.C. Schoolyard Greening. Perhaps she will jump in with an answer.

Christine, it's the negiri weeder or negiri gama hoe. Try Googling it

grace said...

For school gardens in Virginia, you can check with Virginia Naturally (, the Virginia equivalent of the DC Environmental Education Consortium ( (and Maryland's MAEOE - Maryland Association of Environmental and Outdoor Education ( At a conference in Nov, I met someone from Waple Mill ES who is doing a lot of stuff, and I think that school is in Fairfax County. And MAEOE just revamped their website to include a lot of schoolyard greening stuff. Check out the DCSG website for info, too - My contact info is there if you have any more questions.