School Garden Coordinator Amy Pence-Brown (left) and Principal James Bright (right) of Hawthorne Elementary School celebrate the opening of the new learning garden.
In a lot of elementary schools, the closest kids come to nature on campus is running across clipped green soccer fields or playing hide-and-seek behind the occasional tree. The exception is Hawthorne Elementary School on the Boise Bench, where students have been breaking the mold—and breaking new ground—since they started digging a vegetable garden on Earth Day in 2014, aiming to grow their own Thanksgiving feast. The back-to-nature trend has never slowed, and Hawthorne took another step Oct. 17 this year, when parents, students and staff celebrated the grand opening of an Idaho Native Plants Learning Landscape & Teaching Garden on campus with a ribbon cutting ceremony, garden tours, treats and a performance from a pint-sized orchestra.
The effort was largely spearheaded by parent and School Garden Coordinator Amy Pence-Brown, a Junior Master Gardener group leader who is also a well-known body image activist and writer. Standing at the center of her half-acre creation, surrounded by sage brush, stone-lined gravel paths and low-growing dessert flowers, Pence-Brown was very much in her element.
“I love outdoor education,” she said. “I’m passionate about getting kids outside and getting
their hands in the dirt. [With the Native Plants Garden] we’re teaching them to be stewards of the world—not only their own backyards but also the Idaho landscape as a whole.”
Pence-Brown has led the Garden Advisory Team at Hawthorne—a group that includes Hawthorne School Principal James Bright, five parents, three teachers and a handful of students—for the last three years. Although inspired by the environmental lessons kids were learning in the classroom (students at Hawthorne have studied worm composting and even created a miniature trout hatchery), Pence-Brown said she "didn’t know what [she] was doing” when she first proposed tearing out a swath of grass for the garden projects. It was the right partnerships, nearly a dozen grant and funding sources and hours of education and training that made the transformation possible.
The Fibonacci spiral sculpture, which will soon be planted with dwarf sunflowers.
Holly Beck, a Bureau of Land Management botanist and Idaho landscape expert who Pence-Brown described as her “partner in crime,” was probably the most experienced voice on the team, having helped design desert gardens for Bruneau Elementary School in Bruneau and Roosevelt Elementary in Boise. At Hawthorne, Beck recommended plants for different sections of the garden, including fragrant chocolate-mint flowers for the pollinator garden and dwarf sunflowers with spiral seeds to plant in a Fibonacci spiral sculpture. Throughout the space, the team has merged beauty, function and education, creating four different themed garden sections, an amphitheater and a meeting area for teachers, all dotted with art, signage and furniture made by local artists and craftsmen.
“Amy poured her heart and soul into this vision,” said Principal Bright, speaking to a crowd of roughly 50 parents and students gathered in and around the small sandstone amphitheater that forms the heart of the garden space. “And that blueprint, now we have it in front of our eyes. It has come to life.”
Pence-Brown, however, doesn’t think the project is finished yet.
“I don’t think gardens are ever done,” she said, smiling as she looked around at the slice of foothills she helped to create. “We’ll be working on this forever.”