West Union School Garden
Our First HarvestPosted by Amy Wachsmuth on 5/23/2019
Last October our Science Garden was ready for bed, but before we sent it off to it’s winter slumber, Mrs. Petersen’s kinders tucked in some garlic bulbs and spring onions into the beds one of our parents generously donated a few years ago.
While the beds slept the onions and garlic put down roots and popped up small green shoots above the soil.
“Look! Look! It’s our garlic!”
During the winter I finalized the permaculture designs for our new garden and shared them with our principal Mr. Allen and fellow garden coordinator Lakshmi. Mr. Allen approved the designs but Lakshmi was concerned.
“So the old beds are going to be taken out?”
“Yes, we are going to build new ones. One for each grade.”
“But what about the garlic and onions? The kinders were so excited and I don’t want them to be disappointed.”
“I was thinking we could transplant them. Do you think they will survive?”
“I’m not sure.”
The time came to disassemble the old beds. Luckily we had a bunch of beautiful Root Pouches on hand. We assigned a couple of our young workers to carefully remove the plants from the beds with as much soil as they could and pack them into the Root Pouches. That done they were placed under the maple trees awaiting their new home.
Once the garden was fully constructed, Lakshmi and the students transplanted them again into the new demonstration beds. Some stayed in the Root Pouches. Despite all this handling the garlic and onions kept growing. Then last week Lakshmi announced that the onions are ready for harvest. (The garlic will be ready in late June - early July.)
A few emails later we had a time and date set with a small group of Mrs. Petersen’s kinders to harvest the onions.
I arrived and popped my head into Mrs. Petersen’s room as the students sat on the floor listening to a story she was reading. All 17 heads turned to look at me and she closed her book and asked the ones whose name was chosen from the jar to stand up and join me. About half the class stood up, and after some shuffling I had my group six happy helpers.
We made our way out to the garden where I showed them the the difference between the round onion leaves and flat garlic leaves. I quizzed a couple of them to make sure they understood. Then I showed them how to dig under the bulb and gently lift them up. Then to put the soil back into the ground. In no time flat all the onions were lying in a fragrant pile next to where we were working.
I asked them to stay and wait while I got some water for washing. Then they followed me over to the hose where we partially filled a bucket. We all carried it back to the garden and loaded in our onions and twelve tiny hands gave them a gentle agitation to free the soil. The water turned black and the onions turned creamy yellow. As we laid them on a table to dry, Mr. Allen joined us and admired their beautiful onions they proudly displayed. He snapped a few pictures and congratulated them on their harvest.
As the onions dried, we watered the herb spiral with the wash water. Then they swept soil back into the garden and raked it smooth. In the freshly opened space, they planted several roma tomatoes and swiss chard starts Lakshmi donated.
Lastly we loaded up our harvest in a box and headed back to class to share it with the rest of the kinders. Then the students thanked me with a group hug then rushed off to join their classmates in music class.
I may not get paid for this gig, but it’s still pretty great.
The Rain Garden that Sorta Isn'tPosted by Amy Wachsmuth on 5/22/2019
Our rain garden isn’t a real rain garden. Typical rain gardens are situated in a depression to encourage water to drain there. They can also be fed by roof downspouts draining to artistic rock filled trenches. Sometimes rain gardens are linked, one overflowing to another and another. The idea is slow the trip a raindrop takes on its way to the ocean.
Reproduced with permission from Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, by Brad Lancaster, www.HarvestingRainwater.com.
There are numerous benefits to rain gardens. Rain water is allowed to infiltrate into the soil reaching the deepest roots as it trickles through the strata to recharge aquifers. During a rain event surface runoff picks up dirt, bacteria (Do the Dooty!), lawn care chemicals, and debris, and sluices directly to the watershed contributing to swollen creeks and contamination. Rain gardens and bioswales reduce surface runoff and allows the soil and plant life to purify the water that rehydrates that landscape and recharges our aquifers. They can also provide food and habitat for pollinators, and beneficial insects and birds that will be able to keep our pest populations in check.
As beautiful and functional as rain gardens are, they should not be placed within 10 feet of a building foundation to prevent the buildup of hydrostatic pressure. So for us, that means no creating a depression, and no channeling any additional water to this area of our garden.
However, the pavement between the building and the garden already slopes to this area, and one of the downspouts drains under the pavement here as well. So I won’t direct more water to this area, but I do need to deal with what already shows up, and the cool shady microclimate (buildings to the north, east, and south).
We removed the top layer of poorly draining clay soil and replaced it with the leaves we collected this past fall, compost, and left over blended garden soil. The organic matter will absorb and hold far more water than the clay. It is analogous to placing a thick sponge on a ceramic plate.
Into this rich soil we transplanted several natives that lived elsewhere in the science garden prior to our redesign of the area; including a sword fern, a couple Oregon grapes, and a salal shrub. We also added a shepherd’s hook with a suet cage and hummingbird feeder. Seeing all the activity this attracted as well as interest from the students, Lakshmi and I decided to add another.
Then using the remainder of the grant money from Tualatin SWCD, we purchased about 25 new plants from the Portland Audubon Native plant sale in May. Early May brought record breaking temperatures that would be hazardous to tender young native plants, so I tended them at home and waited for our typical spring weather to return. As soon as the clouds and rain came back, I brought the plants to school. (There is a full list of plants at the bottom of this article.)
I thought about how to design the area so the students could do the planting and maintain the space. That means kids in the rain garden. To keep their shoes clean, the soil spongy, and the small plants safe, I added a flagstone path through the garden. Around the base of the TWSCD sign, I piled rocks we discovered during our work parties, hoping to attract some small reptiles and amphibians. With those elements in place I went to work positioning the plants (still in their pots) in the rain garden, giving thought to their size at maturity, as well as their sun/shade requirements, and overall aesthetics.
Everything in place, all I had to do is wait for kids to come running out at recess and notice me. And they did. First one or two, then others would see them working and come over asking to help, then still more would arrive. The process was simple, move the pot aside, dig a hole as deep as the pot is tall, remove the plant (with my direction), break up the bound up roots, pop it in the hole, and water it in. Recess is usually just long enough to get one plant done, except for the big plants which took longer to dig a hole deep enough. Then a short time later, another group would appear.
It’s inspiring to watch them work. The typically rambunctious kids were often attentive and careful. The curious asked questions, the shy ones waited for me to notice them and invite them in, but they were all engaged and eager to learn about what they were doing. They peppered me questions that brought up many interesting points. Some finished their plant quickly and went on to help the others who were waiting for my attention.
One student tried to remove his plant (a blue eyed grass) by pulling it out of the pot by the stem. The little bulb popped out, but the roots and soil stayed in the pot.
“I killed it!” he said.
I crouched down and pointed out the bulb, “See that bulb? The plant’s life support system is in there, and it looks OK, so I think your plant is going to be OK too.”
We removed the potting soil together put it in the hole he dug made a space for the plant and put it in the ground. He briefly made eye contact and with an impish smile took off for the playground at full speed.
It took two days of recesses then all the plants were in and watered. I also sprinkled some wildflower seeds from West Multnomah SWCD that I cold stratified in my refrigerator for a few week in the areas between shrubs. Today there is still a lot of bare soil (that will be covered with fall leaves as soon as the trees see fit to share them) but in my imagination the plants are large and lush with flowers nodding in the breeze as the steady hum of bees and insects provide background to the chirping juncos and zing of the hummingbirds.
Next Up: Summer Planning!
List of plants and seeds
- Oregon Grape
- Sword Fern
Plants from Audubon Society of Portland Sale
- Douglas Aster
- Western Columbine
- White bordicaea
- Nodding Onion
- Northern Brodiaea
- Great Camas
- Heal All
- Meadow Sidalcea
- Western Bleeding Heart
- Showy Fleabane
- Long Leaf Mahonia
- Giant Fawn Lily
- Blue Eyed Grass
- Douglas Spirea
- Sword Fern
Washington County Master Gardener Plant Sale:
- Heavenly Habit
- Red Leaved Thrift
- Columbine (Heavenly Blue)
Sown as seeds from West Multnomah SWCD
Butterfly nectary (n)
Butterfly larvae host plant (i)
- Allium amplectens (n)
- Brodiaea coronaria (n)
- Camassia quamash (n)
- Eriophyllum lanatum (n)
- Iris tenax (n)
- Lomatium nudicaule (i)
- Lomatium utriculatum (n)
- Phacelia heterophylla (n)
- Potentilla gracilis (i)
- Prunella vulgaris (n)
- Ranunculus occidentalis (n)
- Rupertia physodes (i)
- Sidalcea campestris (i)(n)
- Viola Praemorsa (i)
- Collomia grandiflora (n)
- Lotus purshianus (i)
- Lupinus polycarpus (i)
- Plectritis congesta (n)
- Plagiobothrys figuratus (n)
Now for the fun part...Planting!Posted by Amy Wachsmuth on 5/15/2019
The moment the boxes were assembled and filled, eager kids would run up to me, “When do we get to plant?!”
In their classrooms, the seedlings were bursting from their newspaper pots and climbing all over. A few of the teachers caught me in the hallway, “Um, when are the seedlings going outside?”
“Looks like we be scheduling for early May.”
“Oooh, not sure they’re going to make it that long.”
Indeed some of them, particularly the pumpkins and beans, were in need of a larger container. Those got up-potted into cleaned milk cartons (thanks Wendy!) and returned to the classroom.
With STEAM Night done, Lakshmi and I were ready, and so were the students.
First we would sneak in their room and take their seedlings outside. Then we laid them out on the bed with respect for light, shade, and adequate spacing. We also made room for any direct sow veggies they requested, like carrots, radishes, chard, etc. We worried about skipping the hardening off of the seedlings, especially in the intense sunshine and warmth we were getting. Ideally, a week before planting out, seedlings are left outdoors for increasing amounts of time to toughen them up before subjecting them to the elements. With so many classes and so many plants, we weren’t sure how to make that happen. So decided to go for it and hope for the best.
Each class was a little different. Some classes stayed in the classroom, while groups of five came out to the garden to plant their seedlings in turn. Some classes all came out together to enjoy the garden and many oohed and ahhed at the zipping hummingbirds while waiting for their turn to plant.
When the first group was ready they found their plant start and were instructed to set it aside and dig a hole in that spot as deep as the pot is tall. Then pop their plant in, fill in around it with soil and water it in. Those who didn’t get to start a seed in class, or whose seedling didn’t make it, chose a direct sow seed to plant. One class had about 15 pumpkin seedlings. We made space for a few, and those that got to take theirs home got to choose new seeds to sow.
My only regret is that there wasn’t more for them to do. Many of the students would have happily planted the entire bed themselves.
Although, we lost many of the tender starts to the blazing sun, we reseeded those and now our garden is a lovely mix of early season veggies like peas, lettuce, kale, and radishes, fall veggies like carrots, pumpkins, dry beans, and a few summer treats like peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, and flowers like calendula, marigold, and chamomile.
In the center beds are some strawberries, spring onions and garlic that the kinders started in the fall, and a polyculture of corn, beans, and squash (The Three Sisters) suggested by Mrs. Sebastian to enhance their studies of the Oregon Trail.
Along the east end is a berm with strawberries and asparagus. The berm frames in a rain garden area that will be planted with perennial native plants and other perennial non-invasives that support pollinators and beneficial insect habitat. Having a natural space so near to our garden should keep the pest and predator populations in balance and bring in pollinators.
As a school garden coordinator my biggest challenge giving all my enthusiastic helpers enough to do. I discipline myself not to plant a thing on my own, knowing that at next recess, I’ll have anywhere from three to fifteen pairs of energetic hands to direct. I lay out the plants where I think they will be happiest, save the weeds, line up the watering cans, save the thinning, and then there they are. Helpers ready to go. However, I do require an adult to manage the hose.
Next up: Planting the Rain Garden
We used the rest of the TWIG grant money to buy natives from the Portland Audubon plant sale on May 4th. Now that the cool and wet weather is back it’s time to get them in the ground, and sow some wildflower seeds from West Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District that have been cold stratifying in my refrigerator for a couple weeks. Should be fun!
Work Party TrifectaPosted by Amy Wachsmuth on 5/6/2019
After months of thinking, analyzing, designing, meeting, discussing, writing for grant money, organizing, it was a relief to put spade to earth and begin breaking ground.
Once funding for our garden was secured through grant money from TWSCD and 2019 Gro More Grassroots Grant, Lakshmi and I met right away to plan the design implementation. We planned for two work parties. One for clearing the existing plants and other earth works, and one for installing the new beds and herb spiral. We set the first date for the weekend before Spring Break.
Work Party 1 - Things Get Worse Before they get Better
Firstly, the pre-existing plants in the Science Garden needed to be removed in order to place the beds and other elements of the design. The center of the garden had a young Pin Oak tree that would eventually be 60’ tall and 40’ wide. There were also many shrubs of ninebark, snowberry, tall oregon grape, salal, and a hibiscus.
In nature ninebark get to be about 15’ tall and a wide. Our ninebark were shaped into about 6’ tall hedge shrubs rather than their beautiful messy growth habit they demonstrate in nature. Snowberries are another Oregon native, but the berries are toxic and we worried they would be too alluring to young fingers if students got comfortable foraging in the garden. Simply hacking down these mature natives was too much for my conscious, so I coordinated with TWSCD to find these shrubs a new home. Our entire first work party was spent removing the pin oak and laboriously digging up and wrapping the roots for each ninebark, snowberry, and the hibiscus.
(Native shrubs at their new home at Laurel Gathering Community Garden)
The work party consisted of West Union families and a few other friends that we were able to rope into the project. It was neat to watch kids work alongside their parents.
Spring Break came in between and the kids came back suprised at the cratered Science Garden on their way to recess.
Work Party 2 - Getting a Little Better...Sort of...
The second party was scheduled for on April 6th. As I wrote up the flyer I had the sinking feeling that accomplishing all of the tasks on the list was not going to possible. I was in the office getting tape for the flyer when Miss Brandt approached me about a third possible work party on the no-school day on Friday, April 12th. She said that many people who wouldn’t be able to make it on April 6th were available to help on the 12th. The relief of having a failover was a wonderful panacea to my anxiety about the workload.
Parr delivered the lumber for the beds to our house and my husband Charley and our friend Alex went right to work. The lumber is a rough cut cedar and upon finishing the first few decided to run router over the outside edge and run a belt sander over the top edge to make it less splintery for little hands. Meanwhile, I was spending the school day working in the very muddy garden area, marking off areas with spray chalk to denote what went where, measuring, re-measuring, digging, building sculpting...
A week or so before our work party was scheduled we received an email from S&H Landscape Supply on 25th avenue with an offer to donate 10 yards of compost to area schools. Lakshmi suggested we ask for a donation of blended garden soil instead. She did and they were gracious enough to gift us 17 yards of rich garden soil. We also ordered “hog fuel” which is very rough wood chips on which they also gave us a 25% discount. They even delivered the material.
April 6th came and we had another excellent turnout of hardworking families. We transported the new beds, finished digging the modified rain garden, emptied the compost bin into the rain garden and dug up and moved the Oregon grape and salal to the the rain garden. Because of the asymmetrical shape of the area, it took time to decide on the best placement of the beds and to position them equidistant from each other and stay true to the design. A small group of people worked on this aspect. The hours ticked by and yet we hadn’t touched any of the mountains of soil, wood chips, and rock. People began to trickle away to other obligations.
A small group stayed and continued to work at leveling the beds and fine tuning their placement. Around 3pm we needed to call it day and left...mountains unscaled. Thank goodness we had a third work date lined up.
Progress was certainly there and the beds were beautiful, but things were still looking muddy and rough.
Through the following week Lakshmi and I worked on the garden during the school day, and Charley and I came back in the evenings to finishing leveling the beds.
Work Party 3 - And Now for the “Better”!
April 12 - The work party to end all work parties.
The closest the piles could get to the science garden is the south parking lot. Anyone familiar with the school will know that there’s a lot of steps between the science garden and the south parking lot where 26 yards of material awaited transport. As we showed up to begin working, the Liberty Baseball people had piles of their own, as well as rubber tracked BobCats to zoom over pickup a scoop and zoom back to the field dump/repeat. We had shovels, wheelbarrows, and extremely tough volunteers.
Some people were hauling, some were laying weed barrier, and some in charge of dumping and spreading. The kids were working as hard as the adults. Although the labor was intense, it was also extremely satisfying. Finally, soil in the beds, wood chips over weed barrier, the muddy pit in the middle was carved into a turtle shaped round planting bed lined with sparkling flagstone. The soil was black and beautiful, the wood chips fresh. The rock bright and colorful. New flowers near the sign were bright and lovely in their new homes. Things were on the better side of worse at last.
After several hours our hearty volunteers began to trickle away. We stayed until the garden took on that finished look. The soil was divided into two mountains, one of which was more or less gone, and the hog fuel pile was much diminished. The river rock was piled in the garden area ready to become an herb spiral. Work that Lakshmi and I could whittle away during the school days.
The following weeks Lakshmi and I finished prepping the herb spiral area. We removed the remaining root wads, and spread cardboard sheet mulch and straw. Then day by day, I constructed the herb spiral and Lakshmi hauled soil to fill it in.
Then one day, that was done too.
Using the herbs we propagated with the students in the fall, I laid them out and in one recess fueled frenzy the students planted them all and watered them in. Then during another recess, students hauled the remaining rock and lined the asparagus/strawberry berm that borders the rain garden.
Construction was officially complete.
How wonderful it was to see the design become reality and a relief to see it come together as it was designed. We still have some finish work to do, the turtle needs a head and feet, the snail herb spiral needs a face painted, the rain garden needs lots of plants but...all the major parts are in place.
I can’t thank the parent volunteers and their hard working kids enough for donating their time and energy to this project. Community participation is legendary here at West Union Elementary.
When do we plant?
Every day after the third work party as we were building or hauling, whatever...recess goers asked the question, when are we going to plant? Soon! Which was usually followed by, “Can I help?” We have been diligent in finding jobs for nearly all the busy hands that approach us at recess.
For STEAM Night we were invited to have a table for our Garden Program and we also put on a plant sale fundraiser. As with all other aspects of our garden program, we are inventing it as we were doing it for the first time.
Luckily for us we have amazing parents here at West Union. Kirsten King offered to spearhead the sale. Kirsten used to run her own plant sales and was excited to rekindle her passion for plants for the benefit of a program she was excited to support.
We relinquished the sale to her capable hands and gave her all of the plant starts we were raising at our individual homes. She organized pricing, location, layout, and she and Lakshmi worked the sale as Mandy Tu and I ran the science table where we had a PH test experiment and soil shaker jar test.
I’m happy to report the first annual plant sale fundraiser was a success! Added to the WUCC budget, our program should be sustainable for years to come.
Seed Starting in ClassroomsPosted by Amy Wachsmuth on 4/25/2019
In mid-March Lakshmi and I started seeds with students in their classrooms. The classes chose from a list of seeds for plants that are mostly early harvest vegetables like lettuces, peas, cilantro, and fall harvest choices like dry bush beans. We also threw in a few like sweet peppers, cherry tomatoes, and pumpkins just for fun.
In the classrooms, each student wrote their name and their seed choice on a craft stick. Then they filled pots made from newspaper with potting soil. (The younger ones would ask, “What’s soil? Oh, the dirt!”) Then they popped in their seed, pushed in their marker, and set it on the tray and watered their seed.
One would think potting soil, water, and enthusiastic young hands would be a recipe for an epic mess. Anticipating this, I put a sheet under the bucket of soil and brought my cordless vacuum. In most cases, the sheet only caught a dusting of soil and the vacuum was hardly needed. In some instances we had to reassure kids that it’s OK to touch the soil to fill their pots. More than one newspaper pot got crushed as a student tried to scoop the soil. We have tidy kids here at West Union. (At least in the classroom.)
The students were engaged, helpful, and excited about the process. We got great questions, like from a first grader, “Won’t the newspaper disintegrate when it gets wet?” Exactly! The newspaper holds up just long enough to go into the soil with the plant where it will disintegrate right into the soil. I had some reports of the more vigorous plants pushing through that process a little too quickly. Those got repotted in cleaned cafeteria milk cartons.
Each time I visit the school, I have excited kiddos updating me on how their plant is doing. Some with good news, some with faces of concern, “Mine didn’t sprout.” We had a short round two, where those whose seeds that didn’t sprout could try again with something quick germinating like peas and lettuce.
Next up: Planting the starts outside and direct sowing. Lakshmi and are planning to begin the planting out process the week of April 29th. At the same time, we will be also doing direct sow plants like carrots, radishes, etc.
TWIG Grant AwardPosted by Amy Wachsmuth on 3/22/2019
Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District has awarded our school garden program a grant for $2,987! These funds will be used to for materials for the construction of eight 4’ x 8’ raised beds, a turtle demonstration bed, an area for native plants. In the adjacent area we will be building an herb spiral as a study in microclimates.
We will be breaking ground Saturday, March 23 to begin prepping the site for construction. Read more about that in the attached .pdf. Garden Design Plans
The grant we won is called Tualatin Watershed Improvement Grant, (TWIG). They are interesting in funding projects in Washington County for:
- conservation events
- habitats for beneficial insects
- native and/or water-wise landscaping
- school and community gardens
- rainwater management
The people we worked with in applying for the grant were friendly, exceptionally knowledgeable, and generous with their time.
Thank you Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation!
New Garden Program for West UnionPosted by Kristina Heagh-Avritt on 2/4/2019 3:00:00 PM
Lakshmi Tata and I (Amy Wachsmuth) are parent volunteers launching a new school garden program here at West Union Elementary. Lakshmi owns a small farm, and I am a long-time
home gardener recently turned Permaculture Designer. We are both passionate about bringing a garden program to our school that will touch every student.
Gardens bring a wonderful sensory experience to teaching as kids smell, touch, and eventually taste what they’re growing. Learning through movement and their senses, while nurturing things that will nourish them, is a powerful experience. One that spirals through science, math, and ignites the imagination.
We also hope to be a resource to teachers. We will coordinate
garden work with their schedules as much or a s little as they need, in effort to support the curriculum and provide enriching
Already this school year, we have planted garlic and spring onion with Mrs. Peterson’s Kindergarten, potted plants that were propagated from my home garden with Miss. Brandt’s 6th graders and Mrs. Heagh-Avritt’s 2nd graders.
Also, Cheryl from West Union Gardens, welcomed us to her family farm where we collected grape cuttings. Those will be ready for propagating with students, in the coming weeks.
We are in the phase of finalizing our designs for the layout and creating a phased implementation plan. Each grade will have a 4’ x 8’ x 2’ raised garden bed to plant and care for. There will an herb spiral, demonstration beds, a secret garden, and much more. Once the designs are finalized and approved, I’ll share them for you to see.
Money, Money, Money!
The WUCC has generously given us a budget of $300 for annual garden expenses. We are also applying for grants through Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District , Hillsboro Schools Foundation, 2019 KidsGardening Youth Garden Grant, and Gro More Grassroots Grant .
If you know of others please let us know. Also watch for a vegetable start fundraiser sale in spring.
There is something about kids and gardening that gets the community excited. Already we have received a generous donation of a yard of compost from Recology Organics and gorgeous recycled fabric planting pots from Root Pouches. They were so generous with their donation that we were able to share them with other Hillsboro School Gardens and there was plenty for everyone. Also West Union Gardens gave us 30 cuttings from various table grape varieties.
Now the fun part! Once funding is secured, we will break ground in late winter to be ready for spring planting. If you would like to volunteer your time and muscle power, please let us know.
If you would like to be on the School Garden Volunteer Team, please contact Amy (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Lakshmi (email@example.com). We need people who are
awesome organizers, creative designers, people to help in classrooms, as well as those that like to get their hands dirty.