You would expect most parents to tell kids to wash their hands. At Mount Washington Elementary School, however, dirty hands are encouraged … if they’re part of “The Dirty Hands” compost and worm bin project, that is.
In the Dirty Hands project, Mount Washington Elementary students K-6 add lunch food scraps to compost bins to create a clean, natural fertilizer. Kindergarten through second grade students will also be vermicomposting: a process that uses worms to break down the soil. The wrigglers’ waste, called castings, creates a garden amendment that is a nutrient-rich powerhouse.
Amending the Edible Gardens
The fertilizers will be used to nourish Mount Washington Elementary’s edible gardens: a project conceived by the Friends of Mount Washington Garden Committee and started in 2009 with 10 “raised bed” edible gardens funded by a California Fertilization Foundation grant written by parent Nina Zippay. The program has since grown to sixteen beds—one for each classroom—all funded with profits from the Mount Washington Produce Collective.
The increased number of beds “was a direct response from the students and teachers,” says parent Krista Ebert, also a former MWE teacher. “Everyone was motivated to go along on the ride.” As a result, continues Ebert, students “move through the grades with the garden beds” with teachers creating ever more complex lesson plans. Zippay adds that in the "'classrooms without walls' math, sciences, and even the arts are covered in a hands-on project-based learning environment."
“It was always the intention of the garden committee to do composting in some shape or fashion,” continues Zippay. “We just didn’t have the funds to build the compost bins.” Consequently, Zippay researched and wrote a Captain Planet grant that paid for the bin material when combined with matching funds raised, again, by the Produce Collective.
Landscape architect Kenny King designed the bins, which were constructed of reclaimed wood by King and his fellow Mount Washington dads. Zippay says the project will help students learn to “take responsibility for school waste, recycle natural resources, change cultural attitudes about garbage in a way that will benefit society, reduce the school’s solid waste stream, and change their lifestyle decisions as future citizens of the earth.”
That may seem like a lot of responsibility for dirt but the lessons seem to be taking hold. "Compost is food and stuff, lots of eggs, and it all turns into soil and it helps the plants grow," says third-grader Linden Staley. "We all know plants need good soil, sun, water and love."
Learning with Worms
Parent Nicole Thomas says the second component of The Dirty Hands program will start with a visit from Lara Laskay of Urban Worms who will do workshops with grades K-2. Initially, a "Worm Factory 360" bin will be assigned to each grade with the different classes sharing the responsibility of feeding the worms and harvesting their castings.
“Lara and the children will be putting together the bins [and] filling them with red wiggler worms,” says Thomas, who is spearheading the vermicomposting program. “The children will learn how to feed and care for [the worms] while producing the best natural fertilizer possible [which] will be used to nourish our school gardens and native landscaping.”
But for Sylvie Staley, the program’s appeal is more visceral. "I love finding and handling all the bugs that are in the compost pile" says the third grader.
It’s not called “The Dirty Hands” program for nothing.