Stafford students learn to grow partners, gardens

5/2/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

​When fourth-grade teacher CJ Martin and room parent Becky Reynolds first thought of using the old planter boxes in the Stafford Elementary School courtyard to give their students a taste of gardening, they had no idea it would expand to a project involving seven community agencies and businesses, 100 students and a lot of mud.
 The project mushroomed almost immediately from a one classroom activity to a full-scale, student-directed reworking of an underused courtyard to a small community garden.

Reynolds was the first contact, setting up a meeting with Judy Thierry, Washington State University-Pierce County Master Gardener; Chris Towe, Pierce County Conservation District Education Program Coordinator; and school staff. Principal Shannan Graves believed the undertaking worked well with Stafford’s goal of serving the whole child, so in January, Thierry and Towe brought worms, soil and expertise to present to the combined fourth grade, and librarian Ann Welton began conducting student research sessions.

Students, grouped by interest, used log books to calculate board feet of lumber, yards of TAGRO, a City of Tacoma fertilizer product distilled from sewage treatment, and bark chips. Students also located the best places to get compost bins, hoses and plants and developed a detailed site plan.

“This was a great inquiry project, with real-life impact,” Welton said. “And that courtyard is a perfect makerspace.”

With the library as a collaborative hub, Towe and Thierry returned to give lessons on plant spacing and to get the students outside and working. Martin secured the necessary lumber as a donation from Mill Outlet Lumber’s Morris Nickerson, removed the old beds, turned the soil and then picked up the boards.

It was a hairy delivery, with 14 foot boards hanging off the back of her 5-foot truck bed. “I felt like the Ikea commercial,” Martin observed wryly. But the lumber proved just the incentive the students needed to prepare for Thierry’s outdoor education day April 19. It was chilly and rainy, but undaunted students worked with worms (technically, vermiculture), dug holes down to the parent soil, analyzed topsoil and composted existing plants. “At first I thought it would be simple,” said fourth-grader Zach Janssen, “but I was digging a hole, and it was hard!”

“I like trying to get out all the big roots,” student Jose Serrano added. “That way we can plant new stuff.”

And student Karma Wiley, who worked in the vermiculture boxes, felt that “. . . the worms were a little fun and little weird and crazy.”

At the end of the day, the wet, muddy and exhilarated students could see their project coming to life.

Enter Nick Wise and the  corporate DaVita team. Wise, the parent of a third-grade student at Stafford, had been shown the log books by an excited librarian.

“I liked the fact that this was a child-conceived and driven project,” he said. “DaVita has a community outreach program, and I was inspired to help.”

With TAGRO and wood chips delivered gratis by City of Tacoma Solid Waste and Public Works, the DaVita team worked with Thierry and fourth graders to construct and fill new boxes, spread wood chips and weed out choked areas. The e site plan came true.

“I hope this forges a continuing relationship between DaVita and TPS,” Wise observed.

Thierry was to the point: “I love this place! I want to stay involved!”

But the kids say it best What was good about the day? Paydon Reynolds summed it up: “Everything!” and Nadia Thomas observed, “I just like getting dirty.”