Care for Self, Care for Others, Care for the Land:
How Springwater Environmental Sciences School Uses Their Permaculture Garden as a Microcosm for the Environment.
Kaci Rae Christopher
t first, starting a school garden that combined permaculture and science seemed like a puzzle. How could I teach garden science classes while simultaneously producing large amounts of food and building a permaculture model for the garden? How could I produce the short-term yields the school craved (food) and the long-term yields (permaculture)? Furthermore, the science that I grew up learning did not fit in to my idea of permaculture practices. They seemed inherently different. How could a process which looks to dissect and separate each small particle support a process which looks at the holistic and interconnected aspects of life?
In August of 2012, I was placed as the School Garden Coordinator and AmeriCorps volunteer at Springwater Environmental Sciences School, through Confluence Environmental Center in Portland. The school garden was a large, grant-built space left fallow without a community leader to organize the tangle of weeds and ideas. But step by step, the garden has been slowly growing and building momentum ever since. And through an aggressive fundraising process, the school has been able to support the School Garden Coordinator (SGC) position with full-time employment.
Springwater Environmental Sciences School is a public charter school for grades K-8th, within the Oregon City School District. Approximately 200 students have the opportunity to learn stewardship, positive land ethic, community involvement, and all their studies through the lens of science.
As the Garden Coordinator, I was tasked with establishing a permaculture garden on the schoolyard that would enhance student scientific learning. It was to be both a laboratory space for the students and produce food for the school. Additionally, I would be teaching garden classes and developing an integrated garden curriculum that would support and supplement student scientific learning.
It took me a while to connect the dots, but eventually I was led to a simple conclusion. There is a seamless connection with science and permaculture. And school gardens are the best to develop it. If we view the garden as an ecosystem and teach the students about it through sciences, they will begin to view the garden through a permaculture perspective. Food, nutrition, and gardening skills extend naturally, without the need for stressing about production.
Upon arriving at Springwater, I had no established garden, but needed to teach garden classes. The first thing I did, which made my life easier, was work with what was already there—a technique that is essential to the tenets of permaculture. I went to each teacher and asked them to give me their unit themes for the next two years. Because many of the grades are mixed, most staff teach in a two-year rotation of classes in order to provide a holistic and engaging education for the students. I took these themes and the overarching science standards and began to build a small amount of activities that related to each theme. Over the years, I have been able to grow off of this small beginning and find larger connections between student studies and gardening activities.
Now, when the 5th-6th graders study the climatology unit, they simultaneously explore how we capture water in the garden, how permaculture mulching practices conserve water, and how rain gardens can solve so many local water issues. Additionally, they also learn practical garden skills by researching and planting water or drought resistant plants and making changes to the garden space with water in mind, such as designing or altering the water catchment systems.
I started with a small amount of classes and a couple of activities for each trimester. This has grown to 30 garden classes for each grade every year. But we started small, but dreamt big!
The Permaculture Perspective
The second thing I did was take a step back and look at the long-term goals of the school garden program. I had to keep in mind how to establish the sustainability of the garden, as well as the sustainability of the integrated garden activities in the classes. The activities could be relevant to student studies, but could they teach the students how to grow food or about permaculture and science in a holistic way from Kindergarten to 8th grade?
Fortunately, there had already been work done there too. The staff had come together the year before I arrived and laid out a set of goals and commitments for each class. Every grade was committed to a set of yields that would contribute to the sustainability of the school garden (planting a certain number of seeds, mulching, caring for worm bins, composting). Additionally, each class adopted a theme for the year that would focus their studies, so that as the students moved up in the grades they would get closer to becoming mini “Master Gardeners.”
As the coordinator, these commitments were foundational pieces that helped me focus my work. It also allowed me to feel supported by the school community and not have to work from scratch. I knew going into the year that K-1st wanted to learn about seeds and pollinators and were committed to planting 20 seeds per child. Additionally, they would be studying the senses in the fall, phenology in the winter, and insects in the spring. With this information, all I had to do was connect the dots and get creative with my activities.
In garden class, as a supplement to these science units, all students would use their senses to explore the garden and identify plants, dissect and plant seeds in the winter, and study pollinating insects in the spring. I did this matching and reflecting practice with all the classes, starting small with class projects and working towards bigger projects every year.
The last thing I practiced was letting go of any notion of what a garden should look like and evaluating the intentions of garden spaces. Did all the plants have to be perfectly spaced out? Why did we need to pick all the weeds in a garden bed? What would happen if we planted certain plants next to each other? Instead, we focused on the garden as an ecosystem. Whether filled with native or non-native species, humans play a role in them and interact with a whole system of insects, plants, and microbes. A garden is the perfect ecosystem model for place-based learning.
But it requires practice in letting go. If you have a bed of carrots in your school garden, harvest them! Enjoy and celebrate. But leave a few carrots in the ground. Watch how the plants produce seeds. What insects flock to the flowers? What feeds on those insects? What does the carrot lifecycle look like? Reevaluate your intentions, let go of your expectations, and nature will show you the garden ecosystem. When we let the weeds go one winter, we discovered that sheep’s sorrel grows abundantly in the garden, and that the students love it! If we are going to have weeds anyway, why not have tasty ones?
Or just look at the slugs. All insects are protected in the Springwater Garden and slugs are a respected part of our garden ecosystem. They allow the students to wrestle with preconceived notions of “good” and “bad” in the environment. When a student expresses disgust or stress that a slug is eating their lettuce, we have a conversation about the role of slugs in the garden, rather than remove it right away from the leaf. We watch the way the slug eats and how it needs moisture to move. We brainstorm what types of predators would eat a slug and how we could build a habitat for such a creature. We watch the slugs a little more and then leave it to its snack.
Through their garden science classes, the students were able to come to similar conclusions. They would look at all the details in the garden and piece together the ecosystem themselves, coming to care about it as a whole. For example, the 2nd/3rd graders learn about the living and non-living elements of soil through intensive scientific exploration for two trimesters. They perform insect surveys, keep track of the bug life stages they encounter, and brainstorm ways to increase habitat for different species. Through hands-on scientific exploration, the students discover that all the parts of the soil ecosystem are valuable to its stability and they learn stewardship skills and practices that can promote healthier ecosystems.
By the end of the school year, their knowledge and interaction with these important elements and living things brings about a level of stewardship and care that they wouldn’t have known otherwise. Through science and active exploration, the students come to their own permaculture conclusions without my direct instruction. The students value the garden ecosystem and become environmentalists in their own way.
With guidance from all of these lessons, our Garden Program has found a balance in maintaining all the goals we had with the space. The students learn about the garden and permaculture practices through a scientific lens. Their learning, creative problem solving, and discovery brings out the inner environmentalist. All I do is facilitate the opportunity to learn these traits in the garden. Food is grown and produced by the students as an extension of their studies. We don’t stress how many pounds of kale we’re producing or if they’re properly spaced apart, but we still manage to feed the students organic food all year long.
The first year ended with half of the garden planted with edibles. The students had been able to eat an early harvest of lettuce, radishes, beets, and berries, but the rest of the plants were still too small. Half of the school had been involved in the garden development so far and my co-teacher and I had a year’s supply of garden activities for K-4th grade students. Half of our goals were accomplished, but I was pleased with every inch that we had achieved.
That second school year, I began teaching an extra gardening class for those students who considered themselves enthusiasts and who wanted to become “Garden Leaders.” They were able to save-seeds, plant winter foods, and begin developing the last stage of the garden. Additionally, I began teaching gardening class from K-8th grade students, inspiring me to energetic and sometimes frenetic curriculum development and research in order to teach these new classes.
In that second year, we finished laying down the foundational garden space, developed more garden beds, and put in an orchard area. In the third year, the garden classes matured into what they are now: weekly focused garden science and exploration for each class, as well as taste-testing and nutrition education throughout the week.
Classes use the garden in their weekly homeroom field exploration to study genetics, plant biology, water movement and cycles, mammals, and phenology. The garden has truly become a living classroom and special retreat at Springwater. The students discover a new land ethic in their garden classes and practice creative problem-solving and responsibility for their actions.
Care for Self, Care for Others, Care for The Land
The tenets of permaculture as established by David Holgrem and Toby Hemenway fit well into the three character traits encouraged at Springwater: care for self, care for others, care for community and land.
These three phrases are now the inspiration and motto for the unique culture at Springwater. Permaculture tenets provide a great framework for building scientific learning in the garden program. For example, the tenets “Diversity is Stability,” the “Edge Effect,” and “Working with Nature,” focus the students on ways to treat the garden, its living inhabitants, and plants themselves.
When the 2nd-3rd graders study soil ecosystems, they learn that soil and garden health and stability is directly impacted by the diversity of creatures living there. When 4th-6th graders explore the complexities of composting systems, they know that “Energy Cycling” can solve problems at school and in the larger community. By using permaculture as the lens to explore scientific lessons in the garden, Springwater students are encouraged to be innovative social and environmental minded citizens.
These three tenets help students, and staff, focus on how students treat each other, how they make good choices during the day, and how they play and study on the school grounds. The expectations are flexible to the children’s development and change meaning throughout their studies in the year. They are also helpful tools to focus the students and give further empathetic meaning to the day’s lessons.
The Springwater Garden has flourished with the guidance and gaze of environmental education practices. The space has known no other gardening plan. It was always a dream of the school to have a garden on campus as the heart of the school community and an extension of the school’s place-based initiative.
At Springwater, we have been able to intentionally focus the garden education program from the perspective of environmental education, because of the simple fact that permaculture and science goes hand-in-hand. They are inseparable to the educational experience of our students. Here, nutrition, taste-testing, and practical garden knowledge are included in scientific exploration and study. Here, the garden is a special, wild, place on campus that supports a culture of thoughtful, self-aware, and concerned young citizens.