Next thing I knew I was sitting in a dingy conference room at Martin
Luther King Jr. Library getting briefed on these “mini-grants” from a
group called Garden Resources of Washington. Then a kick in the pants:
It turned out the woman presiding over the grants not only knew our school, but had gardened on the very same lot with teachers from the very same school.
I must have missed the bulletin that went out about starting gardens
with a group of people using grant money. What followed was more like a
heart attack in slow motion. First we discovered that a new owner of
the aforementioned vacant lot wasn’t so keen on having us garden there.
With seed planting time fast approaching, we had to make a decision:
Where to garden? The most likely plot was a 1,600-square-foot patch of
asphalt and concrete adjacent to the school. For some reason the
asphalt and concrete were covered with these big, one-inch-thick rubber tiles. And there was this further challenge: No Soil. Someone suggested containers. Brilliant!
We placed an appeal on the local listserv for containers. I pictured
donations of all kinds of grand terra cotta vessels and groovy metal
planters. We were soon deluged with empty kitty litter boxes and
plastic recycling bins. Somehow, I did not see these adding up to the
garden of our dreams. We would have to build our own planters. The only
question was whether I would max out my credit card waiting for our
grant money to come through.
To fit our budget and avoid toxicity issues, we settled on wooden
planters framed with natural pine 2x4s and covered with exterior-grade
plywood. Not exactly Garden Design, but it would have to do.
With some volunteer help from another parent who just happened to be a
carpenter with all the right tools, and a van to haul lumber from the
local Home Depot, we were off to the races. Our garden design soon
followed: Anything that divided easily into a 4×8-foot piece of plywood
made the cut.
Over a two-month period, we built planters whenever we found the time. We weren’t exactly sure what
to put in them. Gravel from a nearby construction site lined the
bottoms. The soil expert at a local nursery recommended a 50/50 mix of
topsoil and compost for our growing medium. In all, we used 18 cubic
yards of soil mix—two large trucks-full—before we were done. The
planters were primed and ready just in time to plant our first peas.
Suddenly people were anxious to give us money for our garden: $1,000
from the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Another $1,000 from a
private donor. In all, we would collect $2,900, and we just kept
building containers until the money ran out.
There were some small details we overlooked. For instance, where was
our garden going to get its sun? When I said this plot was adjacent to
the school, I meant it butts right up against the west side of a
40-foot-high brick building. In fact, we get more sun in the winter
than during the regular growing
season. That and our imported soil mix resulted in cucumbers that
looked more like baseballs, watermelons the size of radishes, tomatoes
that just wanted to lie down and die, okra that never grew more than a
foot high and sprouted the funniest looking little pods.
But our herbs—the basil, the mint, the thyme, the marjoram and
oregano—all grew like weeds. We planted lots of lettuce that the kids
eventually harvested for all-school salad days. We had bountiful
flowers all planted from seeds: Black-eyed Susans, zinnias, cosmos,
morning glories, marigolds. We planted two crape myrtles in the corners
and they bloomed right on schedule. The climbing hydrangeas that I
envisioned covering the side of the building one day are taking their
sweet time establishing themselves. But our two witch hazels recently
burst into a profusion yellowish-orange blossoms.
Courtesy of the National Gardening Association, we were awarded a
big barrel-type composter from the Mantis Corp. So now the kids are
learning to compost their banana peels and apple cores, in addition to
the worm bins we started last year in one of the classrooms. We’ve had
several indoor seed planting sessions as well as a thriving seedling
operation under the grow lights. Last summer I started selling produce
in front of the school on Saturday mornings to raise more money for
I’d been cautioned to have all my ducks in a row before starting
this garden, not to expect a “Build it and They Will Come” result. I
have to admit I was disappointed that the garden was not immediately
adopted into the school curriculum. But slowly individual teachers
found ways to work the garden into their routines. They write in
journals. They read poetry. They beat on drums. One day I found kids
picking herbs and running into the school with them. Turned out their
teacher had started daily aroma therapy sessions. They also dried the
herbs and made teas.
The school is organized to teach through the arts. Thus the planters became a most excellent canvass.
The kids draw designs in class, then bring paints to the garden and
transpose their visions onto the plywood. One of the teachers had his
students design and piece together ceramic mosaics. They attached these
to the planters with stunning effect.
Oh, and I learned this valuable lesson: any child, no matter how
misbehaved, immediately turns into the most focused, goal-driven
individual when you put a watering can in her hands.
Recently two of the school’s teacher aides asked if I would help
design an after-school program around the garden. We had a great carrot
harvest in January and the kids battled over who would get to wash the
vegetables and peel them and turn them into salad. We also started Studio City Garden, where the kids write essays and post photos on the internet.
The ladies in Annapolis were impressed. “I didn’t even know such things exist,” said one.
Well, they do. It’s a hellavu lot of work. But more fun than a day job.