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Kids dig gardens

Last month two Mid-county elementary schools - Shaver and Mill Park - broke ground on school gardens. Both projects took almost three years of planning, visioning, organizing, grant writing, and fundraising to make them a reality.

Tim Curran

Dozens of volunteers from the Shaver community (teachers, staff, parents, neighbors) and GROWINGGARDENS - a local non-profit dedicated to installing gardens in private homes and schools throughout the metro area - spilled onto the Shaver Elementary school grounds last month to complete phase one of the project three years in the planning.
Second-grader Nathaniel Shaffer gets to throw dirt clods with impunity during the literal ground breaking for the new school garden at Shaver Elementary in the Parkrose School District.
It took a little help from everyone building the new Outdoor Classroom at Mill Park Elementary School in the David Douglas School District last month.
Mill Park Elementary Music Teacher Diane Miller, left, supervises one group of stake hammerers.
Day four of the Mill Park Elementary School garden building project was Family Day, where parents, students, staff and teachers took their turn building pathways, spreading gravel, and wood shavings and performing sundry other tasks.
AmeriCorps member Amanda Hart, who only had a cursory relationship with gardening before her assignment to Shaver in January, became a certified school garden coordinator through a GROWING GARDENS program and was instrumental in bringing the garden to reality this year. Here she helps student Brenda Ortegon choose a plant for planting.
Mid-county Memo Photos/Tim Curran
Like a spring cloudburst, students, teachers, staff, parents and volunteers rained onto the grounds of two east Portland elementary schools last month creating gardens in previously unused space.

Three years ago, Kelly Cutler, a six-year, third-grade teacher at Mill Park Elementary School in the David Douglas School District, and music teacher Diane Miller thought it would be good idea to convert the 165 foot long by 50 foot wide grass-covered atrium between the wings of the mid-century school into an outdoor classroom. Cutler said she said, “No problem; let's write a little grant; how hard would it be…right?” Her statement punctuated with an 'I had no idea what I was in for' laugh. In retrospect, she admits to being a lot naïve about the scope of the undertaking. However, after writing more than 20 funding grants, and receiving more than a few 'nos,' they began to see results. They got their first grant 'yes' from American The Beautiful Fund in 2010 - 200 seed packages - followed in December by a $200 grant from the Herb Society of America. This year they received $1300 from the Mill Park Neighborhood Association, $3000 from Kohl's Department Stores and in May, they received a $1,100 grant from the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District. In addition, they received $1000 in direct donations from the school. When Cutler's cousin Andy Wilson, a professional landscape designer at Andy Wilson Landscape Design donated the garden plan, they were ready to rock and roll.
It took four days of intensive work, but they made it. On Day One, Mill Park teachers and staff members, with donated equipment from Portland Rent-All, removed all the sod, filling four dumpsters. On Day Two, again with donated equipment from Portland Rent-All, Mill Park staff tilled the ground, adding topsoil and amendments. On Day Three, a cadre of 30 volunteers from Kohl's Department store showed up at the school to plant plants, add bark mulch to the space and, with help from Camp Fire Columbia, who run a SUN Community Schools after-school program, they built the planter beds and a chicken coop. Day Four was Family Work Day. Mill Park students and families descended on the school, and, with staff's direction and help, completed the project's final additions: building a gravel path, adding soil to garden beds, spreading bark chips and staining the chicken/quail coop.

Both Mill Park and Shaver face the challenges of a large immigrant population with many refugees - Burmese, Bhutanese, Mexican, Thai, Bangladeshi, Somali, and Middle Eastern - and high poverty rates. “The thing we find with kids in poverty is they lack a lot of real world experience,” Cutler said. “One of the things that has been most exciting for me about this project is how excited the kids are about wheelbarrows. Honestly, we have kids that have just come from refugee camps. They have never seen one. A lot of them never had yards, never had the (gardening) experience.”

Cutler was and continues to be tickled by the sense of ownership and pride students have taken in the project. “You would have thought we brought Disneyland to the middle of the school. I had no idea; I knew the kids would enjoy it, but the level of enjoyment the kids have; kids asking to come in at recess and work on it, begging their teachers to be able to work on the garden instead of go out for recess.”

Two years ago, Cutler approached Salena Cook, Kohl's Gateway store manager for help through their Associates in Action volunteer program. Gateway Kohl's was already working with a Gresham elementary school, but when Cook was transferred to Hillsboro, she arranged for that store and the Beaverton location to get involved and to label the Mill Park project a “green event,” leveraging $1500 from each and 30 volunteers to show up one day and work building the garden. “We support the community; we like to meet people in our community,” said Cook. “And, we like to do things with schools, because schools always need money and it was fun.”

Students are adding starter plants to planting beds and grass seed over the next few weeks by the lone mature tree. Friday, June 10 is Family Night in the garden and a ribbon cutting ceremony is scheduled for Friday, June 17. If you want to learn more about the Mill Park Elementary School Garden Project, or want to donate materials, call Kelly Cutler at 503-730-8682, or e-mail her at

Shaver School/Community Garden
Nine raised beds were built on Saturday, May 7 to complete Phase I of its garden project.

Helen Vank, Schools Uniting Neighborhoods community school site manager, got the ball rolling at Shaver Elementary in the Parkrose School District. She enlisted the aid of GROWINGGARDENS, a local non-profit that works with volunteers to build home gardens, school gardens, and gardens for other organizations. Caitlin Blethen, GROWINGGARDENS youth grow manager facilitated the process, forming a garden committee where school staff and students' vision was articulated and a blueprint, created by local landscape designer Pete Cromwell, was developed. The Garden Committee's vision for the garden is two-fold, first, be a teaching place, melding hands-on garden activities with science instruction and help immigrant children learn English. The second goal is to be a food-producing garden, integrating cooking and eating within the school to improve nutrition and to teach food literacy: the degree to which students are able to process and understand basic information about food, enabling better health decisions. Food literacy also encompasses understanding labeling on food and knowledge of nutrition.

With 90 percent of students at both schools eligible for free and reduced priced meals, and since both are SUN community schools hubs open during the summer months, year-round garden maintenance is not as big of an issue as it would be at other schools. “We want to have the broad based support and have a really good plan in place so that the gardens are maintained because that is one of the challenges of school gardens; it's really exciting to get them built, but afterwards, the challenge is maintenance.” Blethen said. She organized the youth component for summer garden maintenance and, so far, teachers and parents have signed up to help maintain the garden and outside groups are lined up to come in and assist.
Part of GROWINGGARDENS three year commitment to their partner schools is to the summer after-school Garden Club where students learn how to plant seeds and transplant vegetable starts; identify insects; compost and tend a worm bin; maintain a garden; harvest, prepare and enjoy fresh vegetables; work together; and plan and think critically.

Each session is from six to 10 weeks long, one to two hours each week and each session's learning activities correspond to the season.

“The bigger, broader picture we're looking at is to try to create a community garden,” said Cindy Bartman, Shaver Elementary School principal. “To really create a sustainable garden where we have the vegetables and actually use them in our kitchen for cooking.” Currently, water has to be hand carried to the site, but Bartman is seeking a grant from Chartwells, the school district's food supplier, to build an irrigation system for the garden.

In preparation for the installation, the after-school SUN/Youth Grow Garden club, students and teachers have been growing plants - garlic, collard greens, peas, broccoli, chard, radishes and lettuce - in classrooms and adopted raised beds by grade level.

Phase II of the Shaver School/Community Garden includes installing an irrigation system, building a tool shed, compost and worm bins, and an outdoor classroom space with picnic benches, planting pollinator and native plants.

Funding for the Shaver School/Community Garden came from a grant from the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon, donations from Parkrose Burgerville fundraising nights, and through donations raised by the Growing Gardens' Dawn of the Bed team. In addition, Parkrose Hardware, Portland Nursery, Mt. Scott Fuel Co. and Mr Plywood gave the group deep discounts on materials.

If you would like more information about the Shaver School/Community Garden, or would like to donate, contact Helen Vank at 503-408-2850. the GROWINGGARDENS website is

To see more photos of the two gardens' installation, visit

Schools Uniting Neighborhoods is a Multnomah county program linking low-income, immigrant children, and their families with anti-poverty programs, social services, health clinics and institutions such as libraries, parks, recreation opportunities and community centers delivered through the schools their children attend.
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