For a group of school staff and volunteers at Tualatin Elementary School, all the mild, wet weather we've been experiencing lately means one thing: Spring is right around the corner, and so is the start of the growing season.
Tualatin Elementary has been cultivating an ever-more-elaborate community garden behind the school for several years.
A 2,500-gallon cistern installed last year has been painted to vividly depict the water cycle, with streams flowing from the snow and ice atop Oregon's volcanoes and feeding into the Pacific Ocean — and in a nod to the school's mascot, the Tualatin Black Bear, the constellation Ursa Major has been painted on top of the giant drum.
At first, the school tried relying on gravity to channel water from the cistern, which collects rainwater from the building's roof, to water plants in the garden.
"We've had a problem where the hose has been so long, and you can't get enough water pressure, that you're just getting a drizzle out. That's what was happening," said Pam Soderquist, a first-grade teacher at the school who chairs the Garden Committee. "And so we needed to be able to force the water out at a higher speed … get it to be able to water the garden."
Enter the "bicycle pump" — as in, a child's bicycle, rigged and welded to pump water out of the cistern through a garden hose.
"The water's going to flow at its regular speed from the cistern, and when it hits the pump, the pump has to turn in order to generate more energy to push it out," Soderquist explained. "And so (the student) is actually going to be creating. Instead of electricity, she's creating the energy to turn the pump."
That's the kind of outside-the-box thinking that characterizes the garden. It's both a resource for the school and the community — the vegetables, herbs and berries grown there make their way into the meals served in the cafeteria during the school year, and they are available for members of the community to harvest during the summer — and an outdoor learning space that ties into lesson plans across all grade levels.
"It's invaluable," Soderquist said. "I think a lot of people that come to visit the school are like, 'Wow, you have this!'"
"Not everybody can, maybe, teach a child to read, but you can teach … how to make a garden and nurture things. We learn about patience out in the garden. We learn about respect," said Paul Taylor, a landscape architect who has taken a leading role in the creation, maintenance and improvement of the community garden. He teaches after-school classes centered on the garden.
A covered shelter with benches provides a dry space for students to come outside and learn, even on miserably wet days such as those this week. (It also covers the bicycle pump, so that whichever student is pedaling to push water out of the hose can keep out of the rain.)
For all the new additions, the garden features some of what is old, too. The legacy of the old Tualatin Elementary School on Boones Ferry Road, where a senior living community now stands, lives on in the form of paver bricks in the garden that taken from the previous building, which was torn down in 2010. A natural area in the middle of the garden includes some fairly mature native trees, which are labeled with their common and scientific names for students' education.
Like any garden, the Tualatin Elementary community garden needs regular maintenance to keep it looking beautiful and everything growing well.
A garden work party will be held at the school from 1 to 3 p.m. this Sunday. Another work party is scheduled for Earth Day, which is April 22, at the same time.
"We're always looking for community and high school volunteers to help us," Soderquist said.
By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor, The Times