Wilmette Harper School’s Garden Thrives with a Little Help from Greenwise

Students paint ceramic pots for their native seedlings

Students paint ceramic pots for their native seedlings.

Digging in the Garden…A Happy Place

Like so many of you, Lorilin Meyer’s happy place is digging in the garden. “I don’t want to be in the office giving presentations, I want to get my hands dirty in the garden. That’s my jam.”

She found her perfect jam as Harper School’s garden committee co-chair. Together, with Ashley Vender, they are transforming Harper’s garden into its former Rockstar self. Back in 2003, a beloved first grade teacher, Kathy Hofschield, worked hard to start the garden with grants. At that time, Harper may have been the first school in the district with a garden. Now, luckily, all the schools have one.

One of the grants was from the Chicago Botanic Gardens and they sent horticulturalists to carve out a garden area and help with planting. Ms. Hofschield’s goal was to provide a sanctuary that encouraged children to rest, reflect, and care for the environment. And for many years the garden got a ton of use inside and outside the classrooms.

students planting native seedlings

Greenwise teaches students about pollinators and native gardens while planting seedlings.

Revitalizing an Under-Used Garden

In the past several years, however, the garden was understaffed and became overgrown. Two years ago, Lorilin and Ashley took on co-chairing the garden committee.

“When we started, there were a few teachers or parent volunteers. It was mostly just us. I feel so proud because the kids are excited about the garden and we have had parent volunteers for every single garden event this entire season. Now, it feels like people are interested in the garden again,” exclaims Lorilin.

Lorilin and Ashley decided they needed to transform the space and make it a desirable place for teachers and kids. They got some bids from local landscape firms, and it wasn’t until Marc Wise from Greenwise showed up that everything clicked.

“Marc stepped into the garden space and intuitively knew how it should be laid out. He made suggestions that the other companies didn’t. And, he worked within our budget by giving us good leads and recommendations for where we could go to get free materials,” says Lorilin.

Greenwise helped redesign areas of the garden, cleaned everything up, took out two of the six raised beds to make room for picnic tables, which the teachers needed to hold classes in the garden.

“They cleaned everything up, put in sod and mulch, cleaned the garden borders, weeded, transplanted perennials, and graded the property to eliminate the slopes, so picnic tables could work in the space,” says Lorilin.

“Once we tamed the space by cleaning up the garden and giving it a cared-for look, I noticed that the kids were calmer in the garden. They know it’s a sacred space for them and there’s a sense of respect because the space itself is being respected,” says Lorilin.

Harper School Garden Chairs

Harper School’s Garden Co-Chairs Lorilin and Ashley

The Garden Hosts Students & Teachers for Learning
and Exploring

Lorilin continues by saying, “Ashley has been amazing in setting up events in the garden, such as after-school events, craft projects, and more. We let parents know through our newsletter what their kids are up to in the garden. Often, the kids bring home vegetables, such as fresh tomatoes, squash and green beans from our vegetable gardens, so our efforts have been more visible lately, which gets us the support we need.”

Every Monday and Wednesday during the growing season, Lorilin and Ashley, along with parent volunteers hold garden sessions at lunch recess. Students participate in planting, harvesting, garden lessons, garden clean ups, and watering. Both co-chairs hope to re-establish an after-school garden club and are looking for volunteers (anyone out there??) to help lead the effort.

Last week, it was my pleasure to hang out with the kids during their lunch recess to talk with them about pollinators and why native flowers are so important to us and our environment. The students painted ceramic pots and planted seedlings of rudbeckia (black-eyed susans) and oregano.

When we ran out of seedlings, we planted milkweed seeds. When we ran out of pots, we improvised with recycled tin cans. I shouldn’t have been surprised at how many students wanted to participate and how much they knew about pollinators and how critical native flowers are to ensuring our pollinators thrive. Their enthusiasm was awesome.

The garden session was a huge success with lots of kids streaming through, who clearly loved the space and felt like it was theirs to care for. Lorilin and Ashley are working hard to create an environment for Harper students to get hands-on learning opportunities, helping them grow into our future environmental stewards.

Interested in helping out with the garden? You can email me at [email protected], and I’ll get you connected.

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