Work Party Trifecta

Posted 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.  

Herb Spiral GardenLayout 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.

Garden Beds 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.

rain garden 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.

workers 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.

mountain movers 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.

progress 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.

soil spreading 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.


volunteer group


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.

Herb Spiral

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.

rock haulers

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.  

recess helpers

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.  

Plant Sale

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.

old garden


work party 2