Jo Noren is a gifted gardener. Having retired from teaching kindergarten, she’s now able to combine her love for gardening with her love for teaching by assisting with the school garden at Mary Woodward Elementary School.
Amazingly, this public school has a two-acre garden. The property is owned by the city of Tigard, but the school has full use of it. And use it, they do! Jo and her colleague, Nancy Ross, are the Garden Coordinators for the school. They work with the teachers to find ways to utilize the garden as a learning tool. When Jo was teaching kindergarten, she would often tie her teaching themes to the garden and take the students out to explore the life cycles of pumpkins and ladybugs, or the changes of the seasons. Now she and Nancy help other teachers make the same connections. Once teachers and students get a taste of what it’s like to learn about the world through a garden, they are hooked. They come back year after year.
This garden is an incredible teaching/learning space with 16 raised beds and a covered classroom that includes a kitchen so the students can wash the produce and their hands. Two greenhouses and a tool shed were donated through the efforts of Michael O’Loughlin, who also built the boardwalk and observation area in the wetlands. Last year the 4th graders learned about nature-scaping to attract people and wildlife. One section of the garden, dubbed “no man’s land”, had become untended and unattractive. So the students helped design the space so both people and animals would want to spend time there. Thanks to Stacey Werner of Tryon Creek Landscaping, the garden now has large rocks that will become benches for outdoor seating. It’s empowering for the students: not only do they get to help design the space, they also get to get their hands dirty and help with the physical work of making their design a reality.
Learning outside is such a powerful experience. Talk about developing a sense of stewardship! These children are actively engaged in something they care about—from planting seeds and watching those first sprouts emerge, to weeding the beds and removing invasive species in the more wild areas. They develop a lifelong love of the outdoors. There are health outcomes for the children, too—not just from the fresh air and exercise, but from knowing where their food comes from. And what it takes to produce it. They love harvesting the produce: digging for potatoes is like digging for treasure.
Every spring, Jo and Nancy host a “Grow, Cook, Eat” class after school. And every year, the class fills to capacity. From mid-April to May they explore weekly themes related to what is growing in the garden. They share recipes for sugar snap peas, greens, radishes and carrots (planted in the fall) and berries. The children get to harvest the produce, prepare the dishes and enjoy eating the meal together.
The larger community is also getting involved in the garden, as local businesses offer support in many ways. Al’s Garden Center donates plant material. Both Orchards Hardware and Whole Foods Market gave the garden grants during their store grand openings. New Seasons donates seeds at the end of the growing season and encourages their employees to volunteer in the maintenance of the garden. Home Depot gave the garden a significant discount on the building materials for the outdoor kitchen.
Whole Foods Market also sent a chef to the garden to conduct a series of healthy eating demos for the students. Last year, the 2nd graders studied Bees and Pollinators, so they got to build bee houses to take home and helped cook some delicious recipes. The 1st graders learned about Tops and Bottoms, so the chef used the tops and bottoms of plants in the recipes he prepared for them.
The garden also gives the children experience in producing and selling goods. Students plant seeds in their classrooms, watch them germinate in the greenhouses, then later transplant them into 4” pots. All during the spring, they sell the plants to raise funds for maintaining the garden. The children also plant hanging baskets to sell in the spring. During November and December, they make holiday baskets to sell to friends and family. Throughout the year, they sell blank notecards with photos of the garden and a garden calendar. In the fall, there’s a Farmer’s Market during the annual Jog-a-Thon. You should have seen their faces when they walked into the lobby and saw the bountiful harvest laid out in front of them, “This all came from our garden?!”
The Woodward School Garden is an incredible success on many levels. As Jo says, “When you have something so positive and thriving, it’s a virtuous cycle—you attract more energy and resources to you. People want to be a part of it.”