Rebekah “Bekah” Marten likes to bring her worm bin to school for her lesson on composting.
Elementary students have the option to hold a worm or two, or just watch the worms to see what they do.
Same goes for roly-polies, or potato or pill bugs, formally known asarmadillidiidaeor woodlice, terrestrial crustaceans that resemble pill millipedes, oroniscomorpha, which also have the ability to roll up into little balls.
“There were kids who had never seen one before, never held one before,” Marten says.
She’s carried moss-covered logs to school, so children can easily hunt for insects within the partially decomposed wood and small, flowerless plants. Together, they identify parts of their bodies—head, thorax, abdomen—and count up all their legs.
“And we talk about their importance,” says Marten, a Master Gardener since 2011. “They’re not only learning something academic, but they’re building themselves up and building up their confidence and their courage.”
Marten is the school garden coordinator for Washington State University Extension Clark County Master Gardeners. She started the job in April 2022 and recently completed her first year in the newly created, part-time position, largely funded through the Master Gardener Foundation of Clark County.
“Our program’s main goal is to get students outside into nature and to get their hands into the soil. That hands-on, tactile learning really cements things into kids’ brains,” says Marten, who puts in an average of 10 hours per week. Some weeks, she works 20 to 25 hours, others maybe five.
It’s busier in spring, of course. That’s when she takes children into school gardens for lessons on pollinators and planting, water and soil, careers in agriculture, and more. “I want them to know all of our food is connected to plants,” says Marten, who works with nine, primarily low-income schools in the Vancouver area. At five schools, she visits classrooms and school gardens, developing and leading activities and curriculum. At four, she provides resources—seeds, tool kits, planting schedules—for staff to implement their own programs.
A favorite is the Spring Salad Garden Project, in which more than 20 classes from five schools meet every three weeks to plant crops such as carrots, red and green lettuces, and kale. This spring, students planted nearly 1,500 starts as well as hundreds of seeds across 40 garden beds through the project, which culminated in early June with a salad party just before school let out for summer.
Parents help. So do Master Gardeners. “It’s so much fun,” Marten says. “I have a good group of volunteer retirees. Many of them are grandparents or great-grandparents, and love kids. We go two or three to a classroom, so it’s not always just me.”
More than 20 Master Gardeners have volunteered at the various schools, working directly with students in the gardens, planting seeds for the Spring Salad Garden Project, helping staff after school to maintain the gardens, and preparing materials to be used for activities. In all, they have worked with 35 different classes, as well as the Recess in the Garden program, which is offered at one of the schools and serves more than 150 students each session. Sessions are twice monthly during fall and spring.
“Being in a garden with students means you have to be really flexible,” Marten says. “You know what you want them to learn, but sometimes the day doesn’t go as planned. Some days, it’s windy and hailing, and there’s just no way we can go outside to plant seeds.”
Part of her work is empowering teachers and school staff. Through Educational Service District 112, Marten has provided training for teachers and staff. Her three-part webinar, in partnership with the Lower Columbia Nature Network and Lower Columbia School Gardens, reached about 70 educators in January and February. “It was all about taking classes outside—how to manage classes outdoors, how to connect to the curriculum, how to manage a school garden.”
Master Gardeners celebrates 40 years in southwest Washington this year. The program came to Clark County in 1983. Marten’s position is grant-funded for three years, and she’s grateful for the opportunity.
“Just the fact that the foundation is willing to fund this role, that they’re looking out at the community—at schools and young people, in particular—says something. It is worth mentioning,” she says.
Erika Johnson agrees. “Bekah has exceeded my expectations,” the Clark County Master Gardener program coordinator says. “Supporting a paid, dedicated staff member to get kids into the garden has been a long-time dream. I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to make this happen.”
50 years, 50 states (WSU Master Gardeners, Fall 2023, Washington State Magazine)