Friday, May 6, 2016

Growing Green Community: APS School Garden Meetup at Carlin Springs Elementary School

By Mary Van Dyke for Green STEM Learning
April showers bring May flowers!

Between morning showers and an evening hailstorm, on a sunny afternoon the APS School Garden Meetup gathers in the garden courtyard of Carlin Springs Elementary School.
Whatever the weather, we are all here to talking about growing green communities.  Our hosts: Carol Sabatino, Community School Coordinator, and colleagues include Jeff Postell, PE staff,  and Josh Allen, 4th grade teacher, Carlin Springs’ community volunteers and other organizational partners. It takes a partnered community to successfully garden at schools and “grow greening”. Our guests are members of the APS School Garden Meetup group. We are all here to learn and exchange tips and best practices, and to grow our green networks too.

Courtyard Garden Carol introduces the courtyard habitat and goals.

L to R, Robin Whitmore, Liz Macklin, Carol Sabatino, Elenor Hodges. Photo by Mary Van Dyke.
5th grader's piece on how to use the Garden Courtyard from this month’s school newsletter.

Nonprofit partner Lands and Waters grow lettuce with an after school group

Lands and Waters have partnered with Carlin Springs school for many years now. Lands and Waters first helped with habitat restoration. Growing lettuce is one of their newest projects.  Lands and Waters representatives host 10 students in a gardening club that meets weekly for 1 ½ hours after school. They are funded by a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant.

In previous years, Carol’s job was also sponsored through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers federal after school grant, although now her position is funded through Arlington Public Schools. In the courtyard we also admire the pond and learn about its history and how it is sustained. Artist, Liz Macklin, shows us some of her photos drawing in after school classes with students.

We listen to the calming sound of the waterfall and birds singing. A turtle suns itself on a rock. In the corner of the courtyard, I see a birds nest on a window ledge.  
Robin Whitmore discusses the pond and turtle habitat with PE teacher, Jeff Postel


One of the community volunteers, Robin Whitmore, brings her expertise to care for the pond and the turtle habitat.  Robin tells us that there have been lots of toad and frog spawn this year, and sometimes on spring mornings there are frogs all over the courtyard path!
Turtle habitat and bird’s nest on window cill
One goal in the courtyard is to increase native plantings to help create habitat for wildlife, and to reduce the amount of lawn grass so the custodians have less mowing to take care of. The courtyard is accessed from two  indoor spaces that make useful and beautiful classrooms for preparing outdoor lessons. Grow Lights as a partnered project with 4-H and Extended Day. Next on our tour, we stop by a classroom with grow lights.
Grow lights on loan from 4-H with seedlings being cared for by Extended Day staff and students The grow lights are a simple “build your self system” from PVC pipes with “off the peg” lamps. This low-cost arrangement is on loan from partners at Arlington’s 4-H.
The big challenge was not building the grow light system, but how to care for seedlings at school? Young seedlings need attention, and maybe watering once a day. Here at Carlin Springs, Carol invited the Extended Day staff   with a group of students after school to take care of the seedlings. The students are growing quick germinating seeds including sunflowers in recycled lunch containers and egg boxes. The system is simple.  If the group wants to take it to the next level, they could perhaps get a timer to turn off the lights? Giving seedlings only 18 hours of light a day, and a  dark rest period at night would help the seedlings grow to be less leggy.  This experiment however, as it is, is already successful. The students and staff are engaged, and delighted with the learning process!
Pre-K's Garden

Pre-K Help Create Their Own GardenWe continue outside to  pre-K’s new garden. The pre-K class brought the mulch to the garden, bucket by bucket and the stones one by one from the parking lot. What a wonderful teaching in collective team work. Carol and Jeff describe other projects they have in mind for this area. Perhaps the area could be developed to include a vegetable patch and even a foraging forest? Virginia Native Wildflower Garden partnered with Master Gardeners and Master NaturalistsNext we go to see the wildflower area, in the median at the entrance of the school. This area is now being looked after by students with the guidance of Master Gardener Nancy Davis and  Master Naturalist, Joan Gottlieb. Together with students and volunteers, they have restored a VA native plant wildflower garden that was planted here several years ago by Master Gardener Judy Funderburk and others. This garden already has a long history and legacy - but  it needs many hours of work each year to keep in good health and thriving - or the weeds simply take over.  

Red Vetch cover crop to suppress weeds in the wildflower garden
Weed Suppressing Techniques: Cover Crops and  Paper, Mulch, Corn GluteNancy and Joan are unable to be with us today on the tour, but share some of their weed suppressing tips and techniques. They are using cover crop of red vetch in the wildflower garden.  In one vegetable bed they are experimenting with covering the bed in the fall with layers of wet newspaper and about 5 inch of mulch and sprinkling on corn gluten. Will that help suppress crabgrass?

Gardening with students as part of PE in school and after schoolJeff Postell, PE teacher and Nancy worked to bring groups of students out here to work in the wildflower garden. During PE groups of students came out after their cardio workout for 20 minutes. But Nancy and the students felt that 20 minutes is not really long enough to do gardening, however even 20 minutes was a good start to the school community’s revitalization of interest in this wildflower garden project. Now volunteers are working on providing students with a longer time to work in this native garden as an activity or club during after school time.

Virginia native wildflower garden in early May
Signs to highlight ecology of some VA native plantA Master Gardener intern has made signs describing the ecology of the native plants, including the Red Bud tree, Butterfly Weed, Virginia Copperleaf and the Prickly Pear Cactus. Soon the signs will be on display in the garden
Signs for the native wildflower garden showing ecological relationships and plant lifecycles
Made by Master Gardener intern as capstone project

Weekend Work Sessions with Families and VolunteersWe also discuss weekend work sessions at Carlin Spring Gardens. How frequently and how are they facilitated? Carol organizes a couple of work sessions, for families and volunteers in spring and fall on Saturdays. They usually run from 10 AM to 1 PM, then they serve refreshments. The parent organization sponsors pizza and the cost of some plants too.  Usually 35 families participate, and Master Gardeners help guide teams. Perhaps one or two teachers will be there to help too, and someone liaises in Spanish-language.

Donations to support Schoolyard GardeningChristy P, Garden Docent at neighboring Campbell Elementary School shares that some companies, including Chipotle can be invited to donate refreshments to school work parties. That is something to consider for other school and community events. Schools can also be eligible for free seeds from Seed Savers Exchange donation program and from Southern Exposure seed company. It’s late in the season for seed donations now, but it’s never too late to think ahead! We also pass along the tip that saving seed catalogs is fun for classes to use for projects. I have used images from upcycled seed catalogs to make scavenger hunts, matching games and for mod-podge decoupage projects.

Front Entrance in May
Flowers include: roses, iris, pansies, Virginia sweetspire and Stachys byzantina

At the end of our guided tour, we stop by the front door and admire the vibrant roses, irises, and planters full of pansies. How about harvesting petals for pot-pourri and pressed flower crafts?

Growing Green Schools and Communities As we say goodbye, Carol reiterates that the school’s former Building and Grounds Committee was transformed into Carlin Spring’s Growing Green Committee. The goals include to:

  • improve school buildings and grounds
  • connect with and enriching academic instruction, and
  • meet the needs of the whole child.
Our tour around the gardens today show the strength of community networks needed to achieve these goals. We see projects that enhance the grounds, connect to and enrich students learning - and above all the joy of children contributing to their community.
Artwork made by students Spring in the garden at Carlin Springs
I thank Carol and colleagues, and look forward to keeping in contact as we continue to network and  exchange ideas and best practices and mutually support each other to grow greener programs at schools in Arlington.

APS School Garden MeetupAPS School Garden Meetups are an initiative of the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability, and have been meeting monthly during 2015-16 at ten different schools. We aim to continue visiting APS schools during 2016-17. Please contact for further information.

Photos by Mary Van Dyke unless otherwise credited.


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