The First School Garden Build (Adventures in Learning and Leadership)

How does an inexperienced gardener from New York City build a new school garden in Montana in three hours? No, this isn’t a riddle or the lead up to a punchline, it’s the question I asked myself with some trepidation earlier this spring, as I prepared to lead my first school garden build in Kalispell.

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I worked for weeks to secure all the details for the build—raising grant money, coordinating delivery of lumber, topsoil, and mulch, recruiting volunteers, getting clearance from the school board, principal, and necessary municipalities, designing the beds—but on April 1st, the day of the build, I felt like I had earthworms in my stomach.

Before my service term with FoodCorps, I volunteered on a few organic farms and had done a bit of backyard weeding and windowsill herb growing. (I have also killed my fair share of house plants and seriously questioned the greenness of my thumb.) In all my experiences on farms and in gardens I was carefully supervised and instructed—plant this there, pull this weed, water here. My gardening knowledge was also primarily gained in northern California and central Virginia, warm climes with lush, unhurried growing seasons and fertile, forgiving soil.

Now, I was charged with transforming a patch of sod in the front yard of the historic Cornelius Hedges elementary school into a fully functional school garden. On the morning of the build, I stood in the midst of 30 volunteers, all looking to me for instruction. Did they know this was my first time building a garden and my first year navigating Montana’s 90 day (if you’re lucky) growing season? Could everyone tell how nervous I was?

Despite my nerves, I laid out our garden plan, helped measure the plots, directed wheelbarrows, and answered any question needing answering as best I could.

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I quickly realized that though I was technically “in charge,” the garden was a project that belonged to the entire community. I wasn’t even the conductor, as much as an admiring audience member, while all the volunteers seamlessly performed their roles.

Natalie Miller, the enthusiastic principal at Hedges, was instrumental in getting the project green-lighted with the school community and grounds manager, and in her general support of the project. Meredith Whitney and Montana Conservation Corps crew members pulled up in a caravan of white Suburbans with brightly colored wheelbarrows strapped to the roof and all the tools, construction knowledge, and enthusiasm we needed to fashion our bed frames. Jeremy Reed, a super helpful PTO member and Hedges parent volunteered his time, truck, and expertise, and church members, community volunteers, Center for Restorative Youth Justice participants, students, parents, and friends all pitched in their skills and best effort.

There were a few unexpected hiccups, of course. The woodchips and topsoil were wet and clung to the raised delivery beds (we climbed up and shoveled it all down-see picture), I hadn’t thought out where to put the sod we pulled up (a neighbor walked by and claimed it), and we ran out of snacks more quickly than anticipated.

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But three hours later, Hedges had six brand-new raised beds. A few weeks later, there stands a fenced in outdoor classroom with radishes, sweet peas, kale, and carrot seeds slowly growing in the rich soil, all planted by children and teachers.

Luckily, school gardens are not about perfection, nor solitude and self-reliance. The beauty of a school garden is the hundreds of helping hands you are supplied with from day one—the congregation of students, teachers, and parents—all working for the shared goal of connecting the school community to the source of their food.

I find that the challenge, and the real fun, of my work as a FoodCorps member is the diversity and breadth of the projects that I am privileged to work on in my district. Each service member does a bit of everything—we teach nutrition, lead field trips and summer camps, serve lunch, explore the science of compost, write grants, network with school administrators, dig in the dirt, and cook with kids and teachers in the kitchen. Our past roles vary from professional chef, to political activist, licensed educator, and clinical nutritionist, to professional farmer and engineer.

We have unique and varied skills and comfort zones, and not one of us has mastered every facet of all the three pillars of FoodCorps service. Instead, we use our particular skillset to connect and educate our students every school day, and we can turn to our amazing network of service members, fellows, supervisors, and shared resources to find help when needed.

My service year has been as filled with my own education as it has been with teaching. I have learned how to manage a classroom of kindergartners, develop a healthy recipe that will please the palate of a picky eight-year-old, and I am learning how to grow in soil I had never stepped foot on before this September. I also re-learned what a cotyledon is, knowledge I had lost some time after ninth grade…

The Hedges school garden stands as the result of tremendous community effort and support, and I hope that it will continue into future years under the care and creativity of students and teachers long after I serve in Kalispell.

So how does an inexperienced gardener from New York City build a new school garden in Montana in three hours? The answer, I found, is you don’t do anything alone. Ask a lot of questions, know who to call for help, and with a little luck (and a little chutzpah) your garden will seem to build itself.