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Spotlight on the Birch Lane Elementary:What 56 years of gardening can do By Lorie Hammond, Special to the Enterprise

What could be more hands on? Birch Lane 4-6 grade

Montessori students build a compost pile


In 1968, fifty six years ago, Birch Lane Elementary developed an arboretum. This large, tree-lined nature area has remained a focus for Birch Lane students as little by little, the whole school has developed into a patchwork of gardens, inspired and maintained by staff and parents. Velma Lagerstrom, Principal of Birch Lane School for 22 years (1970-1993), was known for spending her lunch hour in the arboretum to supervise students who wanted to play there. As current garden teacher, Laura Doyle, states: “Luckily, the Birch Lane community makes sure its gardens are taken care of.” To traverse Birch Lane’s shady campus, with mini-gardens under every tree, is to experience relaxation and peace.


Birch Lane is very much a community school. Housing both a cross-grade Montessori program, backed by community demand, and “neighborhood” classrooms at each grade level, the school has its own unique identity. Its gardens also take many forms. The arboretum is a natural area, minimally tended, with logs and tires which students can move around. The “castle garden” surrounds a community built “castle” of cement blocks, its pollinator gardens bursting  with spring flowers. Third graders keep fancy banty chickens in a pen which children visit at lunch. Raised beds of vegetables are scattered in class yards and between. And at the back of the school, a Whole Foods funded “Farm” is bordered by grapes, houses a small orchard, and enables students to grow row crops. Gardens are woven through the life of the school in an organic way, accessible all the time, not only during garden class.


While links are made to curricula, the emphasis of Birch Lane’s gardens is to give students a chance to be out in nature, dig in the dirt, and enjoy themselves. Garden teacher Doyle asks herself: “What exciting thing can we do in the garden today?” Her approach supplies a refreshing break from classes in which students must perform tasks and meet standards.


Like all gardens, Birch Lane’s gardens require nourishment. This Monday in early May, I watched a group of 30 fourth to sixth grade Montessori students build a compost pile, using materials they could find around the “farm”. The session was both relaxed and efficient. One group of students gathered twigs, to provide air at the bottom of the pile, which was being assembled in a plastic compost tube with holes. Another group gathered plants, with a reminder not to use plants which have gone to seed if they don’t want to grow these plants in the gardens from the compost they apply. Students also gathered dried grasses and leaves, creating a layering of green and brown materials which some people call “compost lasagna.”  After forty-five minutes, the pile was complete and students reviewed what they learned with Ms. Doyle.


All BIrch Lane students have a chance to experience gardening with Ms. Doyle in the course of each season: fall, winter and spring. Classroom teachers accompany their students. Today’s teacher, Remy Glovin, told her students: “This is the only time you can play with sticks!”, as they gathered sticks for their compost pile. Her sentiment supports the spirit of the Birch Lane gardens, which provide a time out of the classroom for hands-on, energetic exploration in nature. A time for being productively out of bounds, together, rather than sitting in chairs.


Visit the Birch Lane gardens, if you get a chance. It is an environment full of both whimsy and practicality, which can be enjoyed by people of all ages. And if you want to make a compost pile in your home or school garden, these simple principles work:

  1. Use a container that lets in air, such as wooden boxes with mesh sides, or purchased plastic compost cylinders which have holes.

  2. Begin with a base of sticks, to provide air at the bottom.

  3. Layer approximately even amounts of “green” ingredients, such as food waste or green plants/weeds, and “brown” ingredients such as dry grass, dry leaves, or straw. You are making something like a compost “lasagna”, with repeating layers added either the same day or over time.

  4. Try to use your compost pile to recycle the energy, ie. make soil, from the waste which builds up in your garden, hence creating a cycle of life at your site. This process is preferable to sending green waste “away” to be composted elsewhere. If it is done well, you can fertilize the crops you grow with on-site waste.

  5. Some things should not be put in the compost pile.

  6. food waste from animal sources (meat and dairy), which tend to attract vermin,

  7. weed plants you don’t want to proliferate (such as foxtails or bermuda grass). Home compost does not get hot enough to stop these plants from growing again when your compost is applied to the garden.

  8. Heavy items such as tree branches which will take a long time to break down. Chop up large stems with pruners so they break down faster.

  9. Once your compost pile is full, let it “cook” for a few months. Keep it moist. You will probably need more than one pile so one can cook, while another is available for new waste material.


Lorie Hammond, PhD, is a professor emerita from the College of Education at CSU Sacramento, where she taught science, art and bilingual education and developed urban school gardens with communities of immigrants. She is founder and former director of Peregrine School, a garden-based, experiential learning school in Davis, and has authored the book Growing Whole Children in the Garden, about seasonal garden education. Lorie is now acting as education advisor for the DF2S program, an activity of the Davis Farmers Market, a 401c3 nonprofit organization, and has just qualified as a Yolo County Master Gardener.




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