Things I’ve learned about teaching… and beetles

One thing I’ve learned about garden education is that there are many tasks that just do not lend themselves to large classes of students.  There simply isn’t enough space for 25 or more kids to stand around a raised bed, or have his/her own tool, or put a transplant each in the ground.  As such, I’ve stumbled upon the idea of having a large group activity that I explain and start with the entire class, often at the table in the garden (or on windy days, in the main classroom with the classroom teacher or garden volunteer supervising) and then take smaller groups to the garden to do an activity.

I’ve also learned that ladybugs are not bugs, but beetles.

Last week I combined these two bits of knowledge with the following activity with the younger elementary set.

I began with a mini-lesson on the difference between true bugs and beetles, followed by all of the astonishing facts and figures about the volume and diversity of beetles on earth.  Then I passed out a blank sheet and a template of cartoons, and the kids copied this sentence and had fun embellishing their papers with either their own designs or copies of the cartoons.


IMG_5921 IMG_5922

I took smaller groups of six out to the garden for five minutes at a time to paint little lady beetles on our circle of tree stumps.  (I love whimsy in children’s gardens.)



It was a hit!  Over the next month I will be switching out kids’ work on our garden bulletin board.  They get so excited to see their drawings on display!








Sculpture from the water’s edge

A solar fountain—on the wish list from the beginning of the project and now a charming, bubbling reality in the garden.

I’ve mentioned that I am now part of a network of Master Gardeners in San Diego County (I’ve written about it here and here.)  We have a listserv on which I posted a question about solar fountains.  The garden club decided to buy one, and I was looking for recommendations to help me sort through all of the on-line options.  Running water in the garden is one of the few things we don’t have, and I knew kids would love seeing it pumped by the sun.  I figured—not everything in the garden has to be unique—a nice, standard, store-bought fountain will be just fine.  But then….

My classmate, Deirdre Allen, wrote to me to let me know she was currently making fountains.  We had been seat mates during a MG fieldtrip, and I remembered seeing iphone photos of the beautiful pottery she does at home. A great price, a few e-mailed pictures, and next thing you know, she’s in Julian installing a gorgeous handcrafted piece.

(Meanwhile) the 2012 Master Gardener class has been self-organizing trips to see each other’s gardens.  On Monday I had the pleasure of hosting my classmates at the school garden, including Deirdre, and I cloaked the fountain so that we could officially welcome it to its new garden home.

Thank you Stan Miller for all of the photos above!

Isn’t it beautiful?  It’s nestled next to our dry riverbed, to which it lends the lovely spilling sound of water.  The river stones in the basin and the tree stump make it look as though it was always meant to be in that exact spot.  Deirdre’s business is called “Sculpture from the Water’s Edge” (she lives in a San Diego beach city), and you can call her with questions and/or orders at 713-857-5637.

Snip! goes one more ribbon

On Wednesday, October 17th we officially welcomed the James Hubbell Gate into our garden.  Back-to-back with this celebration was a garden tour given to a group of people attending the No Excuses University conference in San Diego.  Garden Ambassadors gave tours for a half an hour, and then we kicked off the ceremony.

Here’s me reviewing last minute tour details with the ambassadors:

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries

The gate is tied up with a ribbon.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Holt

Just a taste of Rita’s always-remarkable catering:

Photo courtesy of Jeff Holt

Show time!  Garden Ambassadors do their thing, informing the guests about the section of the garden at which they are stationed.

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries

This ambassador is standing behind a display of student photography detailing the creation of the gate.

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries

The entomology club talks to guests!

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries

A student plays fiddle for guests who are being seated, just as he promised in his application:

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries

Sixth grade students read poetry written about the gate:

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries

I greet the crowd and give a speech, explaining “… this is a story of many things: of dreams turned into reality, the making of new friendships, the power of imagination to reshape reality, the generosity of our community to the benefit of children and the doorway to new chapters.”

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries

James speaks!

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries

L to R: Susi Jones (Executive Director of Pathways), Kevin Ogden (Julian Elementary Principal and Superintendent), Ann and James Hubbell, me, John Wheelock (artistic colleague of James who worked on gate), Mike Gallo (who established the Pamela Gallo fund at the United Methodist Church which funded the gate) and Dawn King (pastor at Julian Community United Methodist Church.)

Photo courtesy of Lay Lay

Snip! goes the ribbon.

Photo courtesy of Lay Lay

The children walk through, as they will be doing for decades to come!

Photo courtesy of Lay Lay

Something remarkable, part 3

Enough teasing—I will show you a picture of the Hubbell gate.

But first you must hear the story of how it came to be planted in our garden because at the end of the day, our garden is all about the stories.

It matters to me very much that gardens have a sense of place, by which I mean they sprout up in such a way that is specific to the place where they are sown.  I think this is the “special sauce” of our garden.  Yes, we have veggies, fruit, herbs, flowers and natives.  But we also have layers upon layers of meaning every which way you turn—projects and structures and art pieces that tell stories about who we are. 

From the beginning of our project, the idea of a Hubbell piece was thrown around.  One obvious reason is that his work his ridiculously wonderful.  But the other equally important reason is that he is our neighbor.  When kids see the Hubbell gate, I want them to learn about shape and proportion and color and design.  But I also want them to recognize Jim, our friend and fellow community member, who lives and works in our little town and gave our garden a big vote of confidence by choosing to place an original piece of art in it.

So all of us Garden Club folks threw the idea around for three years.  Until one day Jeff Holt visited the garden on Global Youth Service Day and upon surveying the big gains the garden had recently made, casually tossed the question to me: So, what’s one of your next big dreams for the garden?

Hubbell, I blurted right out.  I would love to have a Hubbell piece out here.

And in a very old-fashioned gesture, Jeff said he would “make the introduction.”  He did, and I gave Jim a tour.  He smiled a lot, and I think he liked what he saw.  At the end of our time together, he looked at me with smiling eyes and said he’d like to contribute something.  I can’t remember if I cried right then and there, but I’ll tell you I was crying on the inside.  He told me to think about what the garden needed, and a few things were mentioned, like a small water feature or a sundial.

We met again a couple months later with Marisa.  We got to telling stories, again.  I was explaining that the junior high kids had been clamoring for a garden, having grown accustomed to having one.  I mentioned the junior high kid who asked what he should do with his banana peel—after years of routinely composting his food scraps at the elementary, it seemed bizarre to start throwing it in the trash can at the junior high.  So now a garden project at the junior high was getting off the ground.  Jim lit up.  His eyes sparkled, and he gently suggested, “Why don’t we build a gate to connect the two schools?”

See, the two schools are adjacent but are totally separated by a long, long line of chain fence on our side, and then a service road and another line of chain link.  Jim suggested we connect the gardens, we connect the schools, we connect students’ learning.  Then the talk turned magically philosophical—about how gates are portals to the next thing, the entrances to new beginnings, thresholds to fresh life chapters that may seem scary but are really just unknown—-much like the transition from elementary school to junior high, and of course, so much more.

Jim left, and Marisa and I cried.

And then a Julian resident, Mike Gallo, extravagantly stepped up and funded the entire project in a single swoop, in loving memory of his late wife.  Jim drew a sketch and got to work with artist colleagues Bill Porter and John Wheelock.  We started to tell people with excited little giggles, and they marveled with us.

The gate was on its way.

I began to write curriculum about garden gates which you can read about here.  We also had students start to document the whole process, and I’ll show you their step-by-step photographs later when we celebrate the ribbon cutting.

But enough talking….take a look at this:

Photo of courtesy of Chris Elisara

Check out the two “owl” details—Photo courtesy of Chris Elisara

The long view of the garden—Mrs. Cirillo’s class walking by and seeing it for the first time (I was spying from under the plum tree!)

Looking the other direction, into the garden (Photo courtesy of Avery McFedries)

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries

Something remarkable, part 2

From the beginning of our partnership with artist James Hubbell we had the idea of student photographers capturing the development of the gate.  At important moments in the gate’s creation, I’ve grabbed kids at recess, lunch or after school to come snap away.   When we have the official ribbon cutting in October, we will have student photography displayed to tell this extraordinary story.   So here’s another layer of totally cool:  student artists from our Kids with Cameras class documenting this historic moment in the garden.

Last Spring Avery took this picture of Ethan capturing the moment when I met Bill Porter for the first time.  (He is a fellow artist and friend of Hubbell’s who worked on the gate.)  More pictures to follow!

Something remarkable is about to happen

Julian has a few famous people.  One of these local/global treasures is the artist James Hubbell, who lives and works in our little town.  Mr. Hubbell has buildings, sculptures and paintings all over the globe.  People find his work wildly creative and soaringly beautiful, and he’s known the world over for his visionary spirit, wide artistic range and kind heart.

Guess what?  He’s making a piece for our school garden.

Not just any piece—an original gate, inspired by our little garden.  This work of art is going to be installed on a section of our school garden that was once a no account piece of broken asphalt in a weedy corner of campus that no one ever visited.  This, I believe, is redemption writ large, and it’s all happening in the next two weeks.

I’ll be telling the story in the next couple posts.  For now, just know that something remarkable is on its way, and this is the “before.”

The Table: A little tale of reinvesting, rebuilding and reimagining

 Once upon a time there was a school nestled high up in pines and oaks of the San Diego mountains.  It was a small, rural, public elementary school, and the children and parents of this little school loved it very much.

Every year the children and parents of the school did fundraisers.  They sold wrapping paper.  They held spelling bees.  They hosted a used book sale.  The money they raised went to everything from scholarships to assemblies.

Each year the PTO gave a special, year-end gift to the school from the money they had raised.  One year they decided that the gift would be a table for the beautiful school garden.  But not just any table.

Not long ago, a wildfire had torn through their community.  One out of every four families in their school had lost a home in this terrible tragedy—the worst fire in California history. And there were many other fires that had turned their community upside down.

They thought about how their town had slowly and bravely rebuilt.  The big losses and small recoveries became part of their story as a community.   Then they thought about Don Madison, a local craftsman.

Don had a special gift.  He liked to take wood from trees killed in wildfires, mill it by hand and then make beautiful pieces of furniture.

Families from the school met Don and forged a friendship.  The children went to see the trees on the mountain and watch Don mill.  Don began to make the table.  Anticipation grew for its arrival at the school.

One day Don called the school and said the table was ready.  “It’s beautiful!” “It’s unique!”  “It’s HEAVY!” he said.  “It’s going to be a huge job to transport this table to the school and place it in the middle of the garden.  BUT I have an idea….”

Two weeks later a group of local firefighters slowly and carefully carried the table piece by piece on to the school campus with Don.

A celebration took place. The story was told.  Speeches were made. A ribbon was cut.  Cookies and lemonade were served.  And there were many “ooohs” and “aaahs” and very few dry eyes.

The table sits there today.  Sometimes it is ringed with students eating lunch.  Or reading.  Or learning science or art.

It is a gathering place.  A thing of beauty. A reminder of renewal.  A legacy table planted in a school garden in a small town, high up on a hill.

Whimsical touches: hand painted garden signs

There are certain things in a school garden that make it sing.  One thing, I believe, is hand painted signage.

Thanks to Marisa, Mrs. B and Mrs. Dawson for these beauties! (Also to Mr. Younce who made the custom redwood signs and holders for the whole garden.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Beautiful Gate, Big Heart

This post could also be titled “How a chance meeting at Rubio’s with a local friend turned into a gorgeous new entryway for the garden.”

Our three-year garden renovation has included taking down fences.  To begin we removed a major fence which immediately doubled the footprint of the garden. And then we lowered the fence that borders the student walkway to a waist-high level.  Next we took down the fence that borders the “outdoor lunch area” in order to move in our massive rainbarrels…. and then decided not to put it back up, but to create a “grand entrance” on that side of the garden.

Someone gave me a book of garden project blueprints. The garden club looked them over and settled on a cute gate.  I happened to have the book in my bag when I stopped for lunch one day and saw my friend Art. Throwing the book open to the design, I promised to purchase everything on the materials list and recruit a work team if he would agree to build it one weekend.

Art, you see, is a dedicated community member, a loving father to a student at our school, a multi-talented artist, an accomplished builder, a dynamic teacher…..and just plain crazy.  That’s why he was possessed by an urge to tell me the gate I had in mind was completely ordinary and unimpressive, and what we really wanted was…(at this point he grabbed a pile of napkins and passionately began to draw diagrams and arrows.)  And before my street tacos had even settled, the garden had yet another completely remarkable project in the queue.

After months of building the gate in his barn, Art and a crew of friends recently hoisted it into place on custom footings which had been poured before Christmas. Two weeks ago we celebrated its arrival at our monthly “Backcountry Collaborative” meeting where Art cut the ribbon, which was adorned with “garden wishes” the sixth grade students had written.  In the classroom earlier that day and later out in the garden, Art spoke to the students and assembled adults.  He covered everything from Pythagoras to the importance of quality work to the five steps of any project: Dream. Plan. Build. Smile. Rest.  I told the kids that this gate is the story of someone not just doing a good, or even a great job, but truly “going above and beyond.”

He named it the “Kandu! Gate,” giving it a Japanese-sounding name to match some of the styling and reminding us every time we pass through the gate:  if we can imagine something, we can do it.

Sixth grade students attaching wishes that began with the phrase: May all who pass through this gate...

.....follow their wide...appreciate the in peace...enter into another natural world...go at life with new vigor

Cutting the ribbon!

Introducing the Kandu! Gate

Photos 1 and 2 courtesy of Marisa McFedries; Photos 3 and 4 courtesy of Chris Elisara

*Art would like to thank the following compatriots for their help in bringing this dream to fruition:  Bruce Benson (Ace Co-builder), Don Madison (Millwright), Chris Elisara (Co-excavator), and the ALL American Installation Team (Bill Porter, Dennis Cantor, Mike and Michael Hatch, Tom Skibinski, Tyson Flack, Larry Shriver and Brian Duffy) a well as the documentarians (Ann Reilly, Tricia and Chris Elisara)