Over the last several months, we have been working with Oregon City’s Gardiner Middle School Green Team to design and install a new garden in a vacant outdoor space between the school building and a portable classroom. The Green Team participants meet after school weekly with their teacher to consider ways to make their school more sustainable, tackling such issues as providing recycling and worm bins in the lunch room.
What is a Landscape Architect?
We met with the students, several times over a few months. While creating the garden, our goal was also to introduce them to the profession of landscape architecture, and to help them understand how the design process can be applied to any space, structure, object, or system. Throughout this process the students were engaged and fun to work with and had lots of opinions about what we should do and what was important to them. Some of their more exciting ideas (water features etc) were not feasible given the maintenance requirements and health/safety concerns, but the fact that they imagined them revealed that the students were striving for a place that would be a rich environment for humans and provide useful habitat for birds and insects.
Our first exercise was to gather information and document conditions. We headed out to the site and had the students measure and record the dimensions in a simple drawing on graph paper. We needed this information to form a base plan and it was also a good opportunity to explain simple surveying principles, measurement denotations, proper tape measure use, etc. Since they are the actual users of the site we asked them to tell us about how people use the site now, how it varies over the seasons, what wild life might be present, and more. We also discussed sun aspect, wind conditions, use patterns, and views worth focusing on or minimizing. Last but not least the students dug a hole and we tested the water infiltration rate.
At the next session we talked about the brain storming phase of design, encouraging them to consider all of the options and think about what the design could ‘say’ or what experience it could offer. We touched on the fact that any number of solutions could be arrived at and no one would be the ‘right’ one.
At one point, we asked each student to describe a favorite outdoor space of theirs and what they liked about it. They lit up while talking about their favorite places and hearing about each other’s. It seemed to make them realize that just being alive and having favorite places qualified them for creating more great places. After gathering their ideas we generated a concept plan that showed the space laid out and identified a gathering space, seating and paving materials, and the location of planted areas.
Our next lesson was about plant choices. We encouraged the use of native plants which the students were quite familiar with from outdoor excursions and because most had experience with some home gardening as well. They made logical selections to arrive at a palette that we were all excited about. The final palette is almost all native, except for some carpet bugle groundcover.
Finally we were ready to implement the plan! Plants were order and delivered, boulders, soil, mulch, and hoses were procured thought the district office, the shop teacher cut and shaped logs for seating, and a parent installed vine supports. We met for a final session with the students to plant the plants and arrange the soaker hoses. We planted about a hundred plants and though small now they will definitely transform the space as they continue to grow.
I suppose the final lesson was that landscape installation sites always look kind of beat up and underwhelming at first… but they have the potential to get better and better whereas most built things begin degrading as soon as they’re installed. Hopefully the 8th graders, who are moving on to high school after this summer, will be back to see the site next year when it begins to look like the garden they imagined.