January 22, 2014 | Vol.54 N.4

Gardening librarian helps students grow, eat, and learn

Mt. Pilchuck Elementary teacher and librarian Linda Mauer has always been a gardener, but it was a chance invitation that steered her in an entirely different growing direction, one that has enriched not only her life but the lives of many at the school where she works.

A few years ago, a good friend asked her to help at a nearby food bank garden. She had so much fun helping with the gardening tasks and harvests that she found a strong desire to learn and do more.

Turns out her friend, Diane Decker-Ihle, a Snohomish County Master Gardener and co-founder of the WSU Snohomish County Growing Groceries program had a suggestion, "Sign up for our mentor training and learn more about growing your own food."

A 29-year veteran of the Lake Stevens School District, Mauer readily admits that while she is a lifelong gardener, there were plenty of gaps in her knowledge, especially when it came to growing food. She discovered that gardening in Western Washington was quite a bit different from what many gardening books describe with their one-size-fits-all approaches. Warm season crops often failed, others seemed to do well one year and not the next, and her success was mixed at best.

After seeing the abundant harvests the food bank garden provided throughout the season, she signed up for the next session of the WSU Snohomish County Growing Groceries Mentor Training. That was three years ago, and it is more than self-evident how that investment has paid off. Before she even finished the training, she started building raised beds in her backyard-which subsequently out-produced any garden she'd ever had-while simultaneously starting a garden at Mt. Pilchuck Elementary.

Driving up to the school one day it hit her. Right where the school buses and parents pick up and drop off students, was a large, open area of grass. It had everything she'd learned was essential for a good garden site-level, lots of sunlight, and access to water for irrigation. As she describes, "It was a blank slate, waiting for a garden."

She spoke with the principal who thought it was a great idea and then spoke with the transportation folks to make sure it wouldn't interfere with anything. After being assured there wouldn't be any extra maintenance for them, they were on board as well.

Mauer, joined by kindergarten teacher Kitty Janowiak and her kindergarten students along with students from Mauer's Philosopher's Club, developed a plan and set about helping the Panther Giving Garden-as it was named - grow.

Having a blank slate also meant they'd need to build all infrastructure from scratch. They wrote a grant to the Master Gardeners Foundation of Snohomish County and were awarded $1,000 towards building raised beds, putting up a fence, and adding compost to the soil.

Beginning spring 2012, Mauer and volunteers came together each weekend to do the digging, building, planting, and harvesting required. The highly visible transformation piqued plenty of interest. Soon, organized work parties would show up to help with the garden, which had a fantastic first season. Then, with a generous $2,000 grant from Lowes in 2013 and the help of an Eagle Scout looking for a worthy project, the garden gained an irrigation system that helps everything grow better while saving water.

In addition to the fresh food the garden gives to the school's free lunch program, the garden provides students and teachers with a wonderful new learning lab, which has been incorporated into curriculum throughout the school.

Mauer credits the Growing Groceries program with the stimulus needed to get her started as well as providing the knowledge necessary to ensure the garden's success. As she notes, "The program gave me a great deal of insight into what it takes to grow successfully in Western Washington as well as how to deal with common gardening challenges and mistakes."

She smiles and adds, "I had a lot of 'Ahah!' moments during the course."

Mauer continues, "I went through the training again last year, and found I learned some things I hadn't picked up the year before. I'll be helping with the mentor training again this year and expect I'll learn a few more new tricks."

When asked what she felt was the biggest value she took away from the training program, she responded, "The Growing Groceries Mentor Training gave me the confidence I needed to just go out there and do it. I knew that if I had questions there were people and resources I could connect with through the materials, the listserv, and their network of mentor gardeners throughout the region as well. Gardeners are such fun folk to be around that it turns out ongoing collaboration is one of the surprise benefits I've gotten out of the program."

After school most Friday afternoons during the season you'll find Mauer with a group of students taking care of garden chores, planning for harvest and succession plantings, as well as having fun growing food.

On the eve of their third season in the garden, the Mt. Pilchuck Elementary community is looking forward to their best garden year yet. The garden has become a focal point and a source of pride and conversation around the neighborhood.

According to Mauer, "People often stop by while we are working in the garden and ask questions about it and about gardening in general. Virtually every one of them thanks us for what we are doing and for how beautiful it looks. On top of all the other benefits we gain from the garden, it's wonderful to hear how it touches others well beyond the school," she concluded.

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