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  • Leticia Rivera

Advisory Spotlight: Big Picture Living Garden at MetWest

Interested in starting a community garden at your school but unsure where to begin? Leticia Rivera, MetWest High School Garden Steward and Garden-Ecology Internship Mentor, shares how easy it was to start a Big Picture Living garden at her school in California with the support of the local community!

(before and after photos)

Read on to learn more!

Q: Can you share a bit about your school and the school community garden?

MetWest High School is a small autonomous public Title 1 school in Oakland, CA designed to foster student success through experiential learning and an extensive internship program. As the Garden Steward and Garden-Ecology Internship Mentor, I work with student interns so they can gain valuable hands-on experience in the following areas: horticulture, garden/plant nursery maintenance, propagation, composting, carbon sequestration, attracting pollinators and good land stewardship.

Through our gardening programs, students and interns (who mostly live in food deserts) learn how to grow and eat organic fruits and veggies to improve their nutritional status and to improve food equity. This school year, we’ve implemented “Taste Testing Tuesdays” to introduce students to garden-to-table meals and to culturally relevant crops. It’s been such a great success! So much so, we are working on a MetWest Cookbook based on produce grown in the garden so families can duplicate these healthy meals at home. Further, we are in the process of raising funds to build a simple but elegant rustic outdoor kitchen in the garden to facilitate making garden-to-table meals for the students to try.

Q: We all have to start somewhere, how did your garden begin?

Prior to COVID, I started working in the garden as a parent volunteer. I thought the garden needed some TLC, structure and a personality. In other words, I didn’t think the garden was being utilized to its full potential. To start, I focused on the outside entrance and on establishing a large perennial garden just as you enter the campus because these are the first areas that you see. I wanted to beautify the space to make it more welcoming as well as attract pollinators. At the time, I was not given a budget so I had to be creative about how I was going to install a garden. I decided that the entire garden would be started from cuttings and divisions from plants from my home garden; so, initially, I spent time propagating Mexican Sage, Red Salvia, Lavender Mallow, Yarrow, Society Garlic and even tomato plants from suckers.

In addition, I started to pick up items such as rain gutters, suitcases, and Weber BBQ as well as a vintage wood chair, dresser and nightstands that people had thrown out to the curb. Over time, I sanded, painted and repurposed these items as planters, plant stands and upcycled garden art. When the whimsical quirky garden came together, the school community took notice. There was an energy and excitement about the garden’s phase one transformation. Then came COVID lockdown so the campus was closed from March 2020 to August 2021. I decided, with the help of my family, to continue working on the garden so the progress made wouldn’t be lost. We sheet mulched with cardboard, created garden paths and in-ground beds.

Further, we added another perennial garden, a succulent garden, veggie garden, and vertical wall garden made from the rain gutters. When the campus reopened for in-person classes, students and faculty were pleasantly surprised to see the new garden. Because the renovated garden created a lot of student interest, MetWest decided to offer a Garden-Ecology Internship on-site and it’s now one of our most popular internships. Student interns are learning how to maintain the garden, plant nursery and composting system and all total, as a group, the garden averages 40 hrs/week in student hours. When the weather isn’t cooperating, students will research grant opportunities and they will learn how to write grant proposals based on their own ideas. We recently submitted: 1) a proposal on “carbon gardening” which has been fully funded and 2) a proposal on "serving up garden-to-table meals” which is in the process of being funded.

Q: What worked and what didn’t?

What worked is that we took the time to write down our vision, short-term and well as long-term goals for our school garden. We found that having written goals would guide our future decisions and be a type of road map for us to follow. We also spent some time designing the garden so it would have organization and structure. Once we did all that, we started a slideshow deck that included our vision, goals, types of plants in our garden, composting directions and anything we felt important to highlight about our garden. We kept adding to the slideshow deck throughout the year as we installed the garden. At the end of the school year, we listed our accomplishments and compared them to our goals. We met each one of them!

We used the MetWest Garden Photo Journal to document the garden’s transformation as well as record when different plants would bloom or when our fruit trees would have fruit. This document has proven to be a valuable tool when asking for donations, garden resources, recruiting student interns for the Garden-Ecology Internship and teaching the students about different aspects of the garden. At the beginning of the new school year, we started another garden photo journal to document this year’s garden changes. What didn’t work was not knowing the district’s ordering window for landscaping items like wood chips, compost and soil, so we missed an important deadline which resulted in us delaying our sheet mulching project and creating our in-ground beds. So now, we know our resources and important deadlines.

Q: What is one piece of advice you would give to a school looking to begin?

We would advise you to dream big! Write down what you want to do and then start brainstorming about how to get the resources. Be creative and resourceful. Start sharing your plans and ideas with your school community and networking with other school gardens, plant nurseries and people that can help. For example, our garden is huge; two years ago, it had few resources dedicated to it. Thus, we decided on in-ground beds, plants from cuttings/divisions, repurposed items that were from the curb, Craigslist and FB Marketplace. Now, we have an interesting one-of-a-kind garden that functions as a production garden, internship site, wildlife sanctuary, outdoor meeting space and nature lab. The garden has become a favorite destination of students and faculty alike. It’s where they safely garden, socialize, study, work, play, destress, intern, exercise, enjoy the outdoors, and relax. It’s absolutely amazing!


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