When 7-year-old Shannon visits her grandfather’s house in McCleary, she immediately gravitates to the strawberries.
“He has a lot of plants at home because in the summer we get lots and lots of strawberries and my Nana likes it,” the kindergarten student at McCleary School says.
So, when her grandfather, Charles Watts, started volunteering at McCleary School helping to improve the school’s fledgling garden, her one wish was for “Papa” to start growing strawberries.
That’s been a wish made by a good dozen other students at least, Watts admits.
“We’ve already got the strawberries started so we’ll see what we get,” he says.
Watts was laid off by the Simpson Door Plant in McCleary a few years ago and has been doing odd jobs ever since. One of the things he’s gotten pretty good at is developing his home’s garden. When he saw news that McCleary was trying to start its own, he wanted to help.
In the past few months, Principal Dan Casler says he’s pretty much turned the garden duties over to Watts. As a result, the garden has nearly doubled in size. There’s enough raised garden beds for each class to actually adopt one.
Watts is also pretty good with his hands and has been working with the older students on their wood-working skills.
“He takes the wood home and brings them back in kits, and the kids assemble them,” School counselor Les Holliday says.
The school is selling the creations — planters, wooden tomato cages, bird houses — and the money generated goes right back into the garden program.
“I like to do things that are crafty,” said Kody Aqualais, 13.
Watts says the kids are learning how to follow directions and, in some cases, to learn from their mistakes.
Payton Day, 14, said that he accidentally built one of the tomato cages upside down.
“Needless to say, I didn’t do that again,” Day said. “I like the experience of working with my hands. It’s fun.”
“I’ve been doing wood working all my life and thought it’d be cool to do it here at school and give back,” adds Jackson Madison, 13.
The students have been using the school’s locker room to make things.
“One of the disadvantages of this place is the room echoes,” Watts notes. “You get people pounding at three different spots in here and this room is just so loud.”
Principal Casler says the school recently cleared out another room near the gym, which should work out better.
Much of the material to make the kids comes from reject pallet material from the Simpson Door Plant, Watts says.
Beyond usable planters and bird houses, there’s also butterfly houses available — “probably more garden art than anything,” Watts admits. “I figure they may use it to get away from predators. … I looked online to find things for the kids to make.”
“If they didn’t have ladybug houses before, they do now,” Casler notes.
“And the kids have been doing the marketing and the sales,” Holliday said. “We’re trying to expand this from conception to manufacturing and sales so it’s an entrepreneurship kind of thing.”
Cody Robinette, 13, says that he helped sell some of the planters at a recent event and they were able to get about $200 in items.
“All of that is going back to the school, which is why we’re working so hard,” Day said.
For Watts, working with the students is the best thing. Besides, he’s able to see his niece, Monica, and granddaughter, Shannon, who both attend the school.
“I’ve always liked making stuff,” said Monica McCombs, 12. “My uncle has taught me hot to use nails and hammers.”
“I love planting with my Papa,” Shannon says. “It’s amazing to be here with my papa. I like getting dirty most of the time. I like getting my hands dirty.”
Watts says he tries to spend a little time with every student that comes to the garden. On one recent day, he spent a few minutes with a kindergarten class, showing them how to grow pumpkin seeds.
“Take the seed, poke two holes with your finger and put one seed in each hole and cover it with your hands and put it in the tray,” he told the class.
Another kindergarten class planted rows of corn recently. And a preschool class recently planted sunflowers in their own little containers, which they’ll be able to take home to their parents soon.
“It’s a changing culture here,” Watts says. “There are a lot of teachers who say they don’t know anything about gardening — and they’re learning, they’re building the garden into their curriculum.”
Watts retrofitted used grocery store cookie trays and roasted chicken trays into miniature green houses to start growing peas.
“And once they sprout and grow up we’ll put them in the garden,” he said.
The garden started up last year when McCleary School members put out the word that they had space for a garden and wanted to do. The response from the community was overwhelming.
Montesano Farm and Home showed up with garden tools. The family of Claude Smith and Louise Smith Hammar helped with a large cash donation. Great Western Supply helped out with seeds and has since supplied a whole lot of soil. John Mainio donated his 8-by 20-foot greenhouse. Bill Trudell donated the lumber for the raised beds. Jake and Angie Eveland transported the greenhouse and helped supervise the planting. Andrea Cotey donated dirt and seeds and helped supervise planting. Red Barn Nursery has also been helpful. And many other sent in cash and showed up to help the garden grow. Even Casler’s mother helped oversee the start of the garden.
“Our eventual plan is to make this a park like setting,” Holliday said. “Even the city brought in wood shavings. I’d love to see a trellis gate with a park-like theme, and benches so people can walk out and sit.”
Teacher Steve Patterson has even worked with some of his students to create a giant art piece for the garden — a “crazy garden monster,” as Casler puts it, with Dune worms coming out of the fence line.
“We needed something better than just the typical scarecrow,” Patterson says with a smile.
The most challenging part of the garden has been the care during the summer.
“We had some families come in the summer,” Casler said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of harvesting but we did have some. It was need. We had folks come by and they would go out in the garden and take some tomatoes. It wasn’t a whole lot to harvest, but they handled the weeding and the watering.”
Holliday notes that each class has adopted a box this year “so the next step for me is getting them to get their room parents involved to adopt the boxes over the summer. Our big problem last year was watering and weeding.”
Watts says he’s also working on an irrigation system for the summer.
“It’ll be a drop system and each one of the beds will have a shut off valve so when you’re not using the bed you can turn off,” Watts said. “It’s a low-water-use system where you have a quarter-inch hose and a spitter every 12 inches and it uses half a gallon per hour per foot. We’ll do that with the kids.”
Tatum, one of the kindergartners planting pumpkin seeds, says he’s most excited about growing food that could be donated to the local food bank.
“I think it’s really fun to plant then you have lots of food and can save money and help people who need it,” he said, while sitting on one of the swings. “It’s also funner than being on the playground.”