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Pennekamp Garden Gets Overhaul

Nov 05, 2019 02:35PM ● By Jeanne Fratello
There's a new bright spot on the Pennekamp Elementary School campus: a completely renovated garden, thanks to dedicated parents.

"The area was covered in foxtail, devil's grass, and other weeds. The only place for the kids to sit was at a paint peeling bench and table," said Kathy Clarke, Pennekamp garden chair and the parent who led the transformation effort. "It was a lot of work, but it is so rewarding to see the results."

Bringing a Vision to Life

As of last spring, it was obvious that the Pennekamp garden was in need of some TLC. But Clarke, who grew up on an 18-acre farm in New Jersey, had a clear vision of what needed to be done.

"When I started, I thought, 'We live in such a beautiful place and this garden doesn't match that level of beauty that surrounds us,'" she said. "Many Pennekampers had not visited the garden in a long time. It really needed some work."

Besides that, the space was only used by classrooms to plant and harvest gardens, and it was otherwise locked most of the time. "I want to take off the locks and have the students and teachers utilize it in new ways," she said.

Clarke said she had three main goals for the space: 1) to create a weed-free environment where kids could learn about gardening and nutrition; 2) to bring more science lessons into the garden relating to solar power and plant growth; and 3) to create a quiet meditation area that would tie in with the school's indoor "Mind Lounge" space.

Over the last six months, Clarke and her helpers dug up weeds; laid down black plastic; put down 80 bags of mulch; painted the back fence white; laid tarp over the chain link fence to protect the area from blowing seed pods; purchased and assembled a seven-piece sectional couch; purchased and installed a heavy umbrella; purchased and laid out 100 pieces of tile; made a Pennekamp Garden sign; installed a solar fountain and solar toys; and covered the paint peeling table and benches with table cloths.

Clarke credits the support of Pennekamp Principal Karina Gerger, "for her continued support, open-mindedness and flexibility." Clarke was also joined in the process (and hard work) by Lorie McDonald, director of operations for the Pennekamp PTA.

Additionally, she credited Lauren and Will Higgins for donating 20 bags of mulch, and Alex Mortensen for lending his rototiller and working with the crew in the garden to dig out the weeds.

"It was very overwhelming to look at the amount of work that needed to be done, and knowing I wasn't alone in accomplishing it made the process so much easier," said Clarke. Other than the donations of time and materials, all expenses of updating the garden (as with other MBUSD elementary gardens) were paid for by the school's PTA.

A Restful Place

The large gates that open to Pennekamp's garden were installed in honor of Pennekamp's 50th anniversary (1955-2005). A sign overhead reads "Guinivere's Garden," a nod to the King Arthur's Court references throughout the school (whose students are known as Pennekamp Dragons).

Pennekamp's garden now has 18 beds: a bed for each of the four classes in kindergarten through third grades, a bed for the DHH (Deaf and Hard of Hearing) class at Pennekamp; and one for the students who go to Pennekamp's Mind Lounge.

The Mind Lounge is a quiet space in the Pennekamp office where students can go when they want a quiet space during recess or breaks. With an extension into the garden, the students will now have an outside space for quiet reflection. 

Additionally, the school has a new curriculum for garden and nutrition lessons. Teachers will be able to sign up to bring classes into the garden. 

Gerger said that she was tremendously impressed with how the garden remodel turned out, and she is looking forward to having kids be able to utilize the garden and start nutrition lessons. 

"It was such a transformation - it's now such a idyllic place," she said. "It far surpassed what I even thought it would look like."

Garden Knowledge Required

Each of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District's elementary schools has a garden; however, keeping up a school garden can be a tough operation. It requires parent volunteers who remain dedicated throughout the year. It also requires a certain level of knowledge and skill in gardening.

One such volunteer is Katie David, a Pacific Elementary parent who leads the garden efforts at that school and also works with other parent garden volunteers at Pacific, Grand View Elementary, and Robinson Elementary.

David is in the process of getting her horticulture certificate through an extension program at UCLA (where one of her instructors was Grand View science lab teacher Gretchen Renshaw).

She notes that each school does things a little differently in terms of curriculum and student involvement. Some schools involve mostly older grades; some schools stick to younger grades.

And there's also a lot of variation in what is grown. At Robinson, for example, during an overhaul/cleanout of the garden last year, volunteers discovered grape vines with perfect grapes on them. David and another parent brought them home and made "Robinson Jelly" for the kids to taste.

But one common thread is the need for committed volunteers with expertise.

"The struggle is, you have to know what you’re doing – it’s not something you can teach someone in an hour," said David. "In a garden, it takes more than just a one-hour YouTube tutorial to figure out everything that needs to be done."

David said that she knows this struggle first-hand from before she started studying the real science behind gardening. "I tried planting some seeds and nothing came up," she says, noting that this can be disappointing for kids who are looking for a clear outcome. "You really have to know what you are doing."

David said that any parent or community volunteer who wants to work in a school's garden should contact that school’s PTA. "We’re always looking for volunteers and handy people," she said.

"And if your kids are enjoying being in the gardens, please donate to the PTA," she added. "Even though our [parent volunteer] labor is free, it takes money to make the gardens beautiful and safe places on campus."

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