Growing Community

Claudette Sutton - July 30, 2009

“Welcome to our community space,” Sue McDonald said as I arrived at the Acequia Madre Elementary School garden on Wednesday. “A lot of things are happening here. We’re weeding and nibbling and doing a lot of visiting.”

A lot was happening indeed. By 10 on a summer morning this was a multi-generation, multidisciplinary, even multi-species affair. Under a shaded ramada, a few children and adults were making sun prints with fresh-picked flowers and leaves. Others ate watermelon slices, tossing the rinds into the nearby compost bed. Three little dogs tussled in the dirt.

The garden occupies a fenced lot within the playground of this small east-side elementary school. Two years ago, McDonald (parent and “head gardener”) said, a “huge, huge, huge” metal climbing structure spanned the area. Little plant-life grew, except weeds alongside the building. There was an unused greenhouse and crumbling adobe walls of an “outdoor classroom,” but plans for an active garden had lapsed.

When a family with old ties to the school offered to donate a tree or bush for every class in the school, parents held a meeting and decided they first needed to remove the climbing structure, to make room. So the family—who wants to remain anonymous—made a generous donation that provided for removing the structure, installing a fence and two sheds, and buying the plants.

Once the trees were planted, principal Bill Beacham proudly told the students, “You’re going to be able to bring your grandchildren to see these!”

But McDonald saw a little break in the chain. The trees had been planted, yes, but they wouldn’t make it through the year, much less a couple generations, without care.

“So I went into Bill Beacham’s office and said, ‘Can I coordinate something here?’ He said, ‘Sure!’”

McDonald assembled a small garden team, which includes women with experience in organic gardening and environmental education. (She has a license in art therapy and a Masters in art education.) They received money from PNM and BP “A+ for Energy” grants. Big Joe and Ace Hardware stores donated “a shed-full of tools”—including child-sized wheelbarrows and shovels. Local nurseries provided plants at cost. Agua Fria Nursery donated hundreds of flower bulbs last fall. Teachers made time to involve their classes, and children contributed labor and enthusiasm.

“I have 180 kids for a work crew!” McDonald beamed, eyes wide as space ships.

But if this sounds like a gardening story, it’s really a community story. More than anything, McDonald and company are growing a place where children and adults, school members and neighbors, can gather, relax, work and talk.

“When I talk about a garden, some people think it’s something like this,” she said, gesturing rectangles and straight rows. “But it’s not.” In this case it’s curving beds, bean teepees, a grape arbor greeting visitors as they enter. It’s a “Three Sisters” (corn, beans and squash) garden, a bed of basil and tomatoes, and an all-edible-herb garden. It’s cosmos, corn, sunflowers, cucumbers, nasturtiums, squash and pots of pansies. It’s a fruit tree or bush designated to, and now maintained by, each class in the school.

McDonald took inspiration from the Santa Fe Children’s Museum, creating a nonlinear, flowing space that allows for discovery and surprise.

During the school year, teachers use the garden as part of their life-science curriculum and literacy program; children write poetry in the garden and keep journals of their activities. Kids come in voluntarily during recess when they want a quiet place to play, draw or get their hands in the dirt.

And every Wednesday morning until school starts, from 9 a.m. to noon, it’s open to anyone.

Soon Sue’s husband, Will, arrived with his fiddle and began playing. He was joined by their son Keenan, age 9, on mandolin.

Third-grade teacher Barbara McCarthy chatted with Chris Keim, a former Acequia Madre student and parent of Bella, a prospective kindergartner, who played with two other girls who will start school there this fall. Kids from the Big Sky Learning program that meets at the school this summer dropped by on a break.

Lucas Kovnat, 3 years old, is still too young to go to the school, but he lives nearby. He made sun prints with his au pair Jasmine Fahr, 19, from Germany. Before they left Lucas, holding Fahr’s hand, showed me his pepper plant. He planted it earlier in the summer with his grandmother.

“The pepper seed grew to be a pepper plant and it’s going to be a pepper someday,” he said, articulating connections any gardener would be proud to hear. Truth was, he couldn’t remember just which pepper plant was his, but I got the point; it was part of a community.

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