Tracy Bartley: Show & Tell School Garden Tour

Shari Altman

Tracy Bartley

Let's go to Woodland Hills, California, today to join Tracy Bartley in the Calvert Street Elementary School Gardens. Tracy, mom of two, is the Chair of the Beautification Committee at Calvert and has headed up the efforts to add more green spaces and a school garden to the grounds.

If you were inspired by the book, How to Grow a School Garden, last week, I hope this interview encourages you to make your school garden dream a reality.

Our Native Garden before installation

What was the process like in terms of planning and establishing the school garden?

Our gardening at Calvert is part of a larger Master “Greening” Plan for our campus. Four years ago, I visited a schoolyard that was open to the public after school, and on weekends, as a Community School Park. I fell in love with the idea, and through the support of the District, school staff, students, and our community, we started on that journey. Working with a landscape architect, we developed a comprehensive plan that would see our nine-acre campus turn into a verdant space for learning and play.

asphalt removal
Asphalt removal

What did you learn during this process that might help others in their own journeys to establish school gardens? Were there stumbling blocks?

I think that good planning is key. That may sound like a given, but the process didn’t happen quickly, and there were moments when we just wanted to get stuff in the ground. Not to say that the project didn’t evolve organically. We adjusted and updated the Master Plan as we went along and new opportunities and partnerships appeared. (Our small edible garden turned into a pond area and a new 8,000-square-foot edibles garden is planned for where two temporary bungalows once stood.) But having that Master Plan in hand has helped us prioritize -- and provided a wonderful tool for encouraging sponsorship of our projects!

Buy-in from our administration -- at all levels -- was key, and this was only established with a firm commitment from our group. They needed to know that we were serious -- and that maintenance was part of our plan. With so many cutbacks to education, we had to show that the investment was worth it, and that it would not compromise our school’s already very small budget.

children's drawing
A kindergarten rendition of what our pond should look like

Tell us a little about this garden. Did the children get to add input in terms of what was going to be planted?

We are still in the process for many spaces on the campus. Much to my chagrin the kids haven’t been involved in the areas we have developed so far (a small Native Garden in front of the school and a greenbelt around the perimeter of our campus). Plant selection in these areas was determined by our community group and dictated by District standards and a generous donation of over 600 plants by a local nursery.

I am very happy to say that the next group of projects we are looking at are kid-centered:  riparian, chaparral, and desert habitat gardens will be guided by our students as well as the planting of our edible garden this fall. We have also provided each teacher with a small raised bed outside their classroom to be used as they like. These have ranged from edibles to cut flowers to succulents to a “Three Sisters” Garden.

Playing tether ball by the perimeter garden

How is the school garden used?

The raised beds are used at the teacher’s discretion. The larger green spaces we have created are mostly used as quiet space for our kids: whether it's a place to take your book at recess or a place to gather a class for discussion and observation.   

How is the garden maintained?

All gardens that we have initiated on our campus are cared for by our community group -- and our students and faculty. Community meets monthly at our “Second Saturdays” gardening session for a morning of weeding, watering, pruning, and general maintenance. We also have two “big” garden days (spring and fall) that see bigger projects happen. (Our parents have removed over 180 tons of asphalt over the past two school years!)

school garden work day
School garden work day

Does your school use a gardening curriculum?

We are working to build our gardens into the existing Science Curriculum. Other schools in the District have provided a model for this. Our teachers have been wonderful in incorporating the gardens into their daily lessons. It isn't unusual to catch a group of students reading and writing in our greenbelt, and our third graders this year developed Field Guides to our campus. We plan on joining in on Project Budburst this fall as our Native Garden has become established.

Our Native Garden two years old

What are your 2010-2011 hopes/plans for the school garden? What would you like to add to or change in terms of design?

Oh so much! We are entering a construction phase this summer, which will see an edibles garden shovel ready for fall. It is a wonderful plan developed with John Lyons, a neighbor to our school and proprietor of The Woven Garden. We are also getting a grass field as we work to open as a Community School Park in January 2011. I must add that the grass field has been a hard issue for me to reconcile.

We do not have a lawn, and I have very mixed feelings about putting one in at our school. We have worked hard to design it in the most sensitive fashion, using low-maintenance grass that will also handle the traffic of 450 students. Its position on our campus will allow the little rainwater we receive to add to its irrigation and prevent run-off. It will incorporate low-maintenance native shade trees, and at the end of the day, it's something our students really wanted. We are one of the hottest campuses in the District. With seven acres of asphalt, we have become a heat island in an otherwise tree-laden community. We look forward to seeing our kids play in this new green space.

I am most excited about the habitat gardens we are planning in conjunction with US Fish and Wildlife Services. After that, well, a Mission Garden, amphitheater, and the other pieces of our plan as they come to life! 


All images via Tracy Bartley

Read More