For the students at Hillcrest Elementary in Oak Harbor, Washington, Garry Oak trees (Quercus garryana) are a big part of their local landscape, community identity, and even their school gardening experience! “The Hillcrest Garden Learning Program began in 2011 in partnership with the Oak Harbor Garden Club and Oak Harbor Junior Gardeners,” says Hillcrest’s Principal Paula Seaman. That year, a handful of Hillcrest staff had a vision of transforming an undeveloped courtyard space with two lonely apple trees into an outdoor space where kids could engage in hands-on learning. With the help of the community, Hillcrest students, families, and staff were engaged in the design and layout. Students did the math to calculate the perimeters of the beds and figured out the materials that would be needed, and everyone came together to build all of the raised beds. Over the years, the garden did what gardens tend to do and kept growing!
Today Hillcrest is home to two large garden spaces and a chicken coop courtyard. Between the two gardens, students tend forty-two raised beds, including six beds designed at waist height specifically for wheelchair access, along with a small greenhouse, a pollinator garden, a native plant garden, rain barrels, composting and vermicomposting systems, and two covered outdoor classroom spaces. “All of our classrooms do lessons in the garden and help take care of the garden. It’s used as a learning space, a special place for a class read-aloud, and a fun and relaxing setting for a special lunch or class celebration,” says Sharon DeWitt, Hillcrest’s Technology Coach. “Each of our twenty-five classrooms adopts at least one bed each year to plant seeds of whatever fruit or vegetable they choose. We’ve had everything from lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage, and kale to corn, artichokes, onions, garlic, and herbs, in addition to flowers like tulips and daffodils.” Garden maintenance is managed by Hillcrest’s student Green Team who not only work in the garden but are also involved in the school recycling programs, taking care of the chickens, and serving as student ambassadors when guests visit the garden spaces.
"One of our favorite things to do is have the students harvest lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and other veggies and just let them do taste testing or even make their own small salads,” says Amber Hagel, Hillcrest’s Speech Pathologist. “We also harvest and donate our produce to our local food bank, North Whidbey Help House, and often send some home with students who get ‘weekend food bags’ from our local Rotary Club.” In the fall, students harvest apples from the courtyard apple trees and make applesauce and apple cider.
When it comes to programming, the community is highly involved. Members of the Oak Harbor Garden Club provide weekly lessons on gardening to all of Hillcrest’s second-grade classes. “We are so fortunate to have volunteer mentors from the Oak Harbor Garden Club come in each week to deliver gardening lessons to each of our five second-grade classrooms,” says Principal Seaman. “We are so grateful for all of our community connections and partnerships. They have helped make our two large gardens wonderful learning spaces for our kids.”
“This past year, our fourth-grade classrooms were involved with a wonderful community project celebrating the centennial of the Oak Harbor Garden Club. Students planted 100 daffodil bulbs in planters at our front entrance. Bulbs were planted in October and bloomed this past spring,” shares Meghan Trueman Hillcrest’s Librarian. Composting programming is mainly run by the students themselves. “We are really proud of our composting and vermicomposting programs because those are taught by our older students to the younger students,” explains Seaman. “These kids have prepared their own scripts and slideshows to explain what vermicomposting is and how it benefits our garden!”
Hillcrest’s student gardeners have also been learning about the “Oak” in Oak Harbor. “Because of our relationship with the Oak Harbor Garry Oak Society, students learn about the history of Oak Harbor and how our city was named for the trees,” says DeWitt. Every year on a Saturday in October, Hillcrest takes part in the Green Apple Day of Service and helps plant Garry Oak seedlings in Joseph Whidbey State Park. Hillcrest has adopted the park through a program sponsored by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. “We have planted 35 Garry Oaks in the park since 2016 and named the field they were planted in Heron Grove in honor of our school mascot,” says DeWitt. “Another fun part of this activity is that the students name each tree and place nametags on the protective fencing around the trees. In the past, we had the honor of caring for these seedlings in our own garden. We are hoping to purchase a larger greenhouse later this year and want to continue growing Garry Oak starter trees.”
“In 70 years, I’ll be able to read with my grandchildren under this tree!” - Olivia, Second Grade
Creativity is woven into garden programming as well. Students create crafts like stationery with leaf prints and wreaths during the holiday season. During after-school enrichment classes, students have been involved in making decorative pieces for the garden. “We did a rock painting class, and the rocks are now scattered throughout the garden,” says DeWitt. “Students have made five different recycled bottle cap and plastic lid mosaics, two of which are hung in our courtyard garden, one in the chicken coop, one in our main hallway, and one that was gifted to Deception Pass State Park.”
Hillcrest has some big dreams for the garden’s future. “We are working on promoting our garden as a community hub accessible to neighbors and families in our community,” says DeWitt, “and we will continue to grow and develop our curriculum as our garden spaces continue to grow.” The school hopes to expand its number of animals as well. “We would love to have our gardens become a working farm! We already have ten chickens but would love to add goats and a pig to help with our food waste program.”
“It is so cool to see the joy kids experience doing something related to science, learning how to plant, knowing they are helping the planet, and for many, just knowing where food comes from,” says Hagel. “It is such a sensory activity… the feel of the dirt, the taste of the food, the smell of the flowers and the herbs, the colors and textures of the plants. For most students getting in the garden is one of their favorite times of the week. It’s a real-life opportunity for them to practice mindfulness in a relaxing space.”