Earth Day Spring Festival gets Portlanders back to nature

Portlanders, both young and old, flocked to the Learning Gardens Laboratory for the 2015 Earth Day Spring Festival on April 25.

The event included live music, free food and activities intended to teach attendees about community gardening and sustainable living.

The festival was a joint effort between Portland State, Oregon State University, Portland Public Schools and Portland Parks and Rec.

The main focus of the festival was to invite people into the garden and teach them a bit about the resources that it provides to the community, according to Professor Heather Burns, PSU faculty coordinator of the Learning Gardens Laboratory.

“We have a lot of really fun activities for kids—I think that’s always a hit—and a lot of great food,” Burns said. “And, of course, the mayor is visiting today, so we’re excited about that.”

She also explained how the facility’s programs work with a diverse spectrum of aspiring gardeners, including students at Lane Middle School, local family gardeners and PSU capstone students learning about sustainable food.

“We have a new partnership with the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood association—that’s the neighborhood here—and we started a farm stand last summer and we’re continuing that work this coming season, so we’re providing lots of local, fresh, organic, affordable food to the neighborhood,” Burns said.

Heidi Schmidgall, a garden educator at Learning Gardens Laboratory, spoke about what it was like to see the event come to fruition.

“It’s so nice to see how many people this place has an effect on and how many people work together to make a festival like this happen is really special,” Schmidgall said. “I’m just excited for the whole thing.”

According to Schmidgall, about 160 sixth-graders from Lane Middle School travel to the gardens on a weekly basis. As a garden educator, she works with a group of students and helps teach them about a variety of subjects ranging from basic gardening skills to outdoor arts and crafts.

“So we have, within this 12-acre site, we have a lot of different people working this space…there’s just so many different ages that are creating this space together in a really positive way,” Schmidgall said.

Sixth-graders aren”t the only students at the Learning Gardens Laboratory, though; David “Doc” Billings—who plans to graduate from PSU with a sociology degree in June—is one of many PSU students working at the garden for a capstone class taught by Professor Denissia Withers. According to Billings, the course, entitled “Learning Gardens, Community Engagement and Sustainability,” presently has students undertaking several projects, including a community cookbook and digital storytelling presentation.

“It’s really exciting,” Billings said. “They get to sell a bunch of the plants today that we started from seed a few weeks ago. It’s going to be fun.”

Billings explained that he was excited to introduce newcomers to the garden and explain that it’s an open community space—not a private project that isn’t open to the public.

“I was also surprised by how quickly you feel welcome,” Billings said. “Like all the other groups of people that are already working out here, like, ‘Okay, you’re just part of this now.’ So it’s been pretty cool. I kind of feel like I’m going to be bummed when the class is over and I don’t have a reason to come back here really anymore.”

He added that he enjoyed meeting different students in the capstone class and hearing different perspectives on gardening from students in other majors.

Mayor Charlie Hales gave a short speech midway through the festival. Hales said that Portland, as a city, is a testament to the idea that living in an urban community does not necessarily mean divorcing oneself from nature.

“In fact, the huge demand that we have for family garden spaces like we have here indicates that—literally a hunger—for that connection with the Earth,” Hales said. “We want to get our hands in the dirt.”

During his speech, Hales explained how his son developed a lifelong love of gardening while spending time at Green Thumb when it was an alternative program hosted by the Portland Public Schools district.

“The most wonderful thing of all is that we’re connecting our kids to where food comes from, and that’s why all you parents are here with your kids,” Hales said.