MCPS bulldozes community garden near elementary school

Heather Jauquet

MCPS denies request for the unauthorized community garden to become an official school garden

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Painted wheelbarrow in the former Three Sisters GardenHeather Jauquet/Author

Less than two weeks after sharing about the Three Sisters Garden located on Strawberry Knoll Road adjacent to Strawberry Knoll Elementary School, I received a phone call that Montgomery County Public Schools was bulldozing the unofficial community garden.

Throughout the pandemic of 2020 and into the early summer of 2022, three neighborhood gardeners, Steven Sellers Lapham, Nelson Reyes, and Ella Truelove, cultivated a community garden on a piece of neglected school property between the school building and Reyes’ house.

The three gardeners wishing to bring the school and community together created a space for neighbors to learn about gardening and sustainability. Neighbors often commented on the garden, remembering when it was a jumble of overgrown weeds and, at one point, a hiding spot for a suspect running from the police.

In 2020, when Lapham started pulling out the invasive multi-flora rose, Reyes readily joined him, clearing the weeds. Then, together, they began planting a community garden, and Truelove brought her passion and expertise the following year. Before their endeavor, the land had been neglected and overgrown for years.

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Welcome sign in the former garden: "No matter where you are from, we're glad you're our neighbor."Heather Jauquet/Author

The pandemic provided a perfect opportunity for the neighbors to participate in a joint project. When students once again returned to Strawberry Knoll Elementary, they were greeted by a community garden. In my short tour of the Three Sisters Garden, I gained a history lesson from Truelove about the Trail of Tears and how the Cherokee planted beans to help sustain them when they were pushed to relocate to Oklahoma.

As a teacher, I appreciate the many cross-curricular opportunities to be gained from having a community garden, especially when field trips are limited. With this in mind, the gardeners had asked and hoped to be considered an official garden, willing to make changes to suit the school system. In addition, they desired to share their knowledge about gardening, sustainability, and history with their neighbors after school hours.

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The garden has been removed and replaced with strawHeather Jauquet/Author

However, as the gardeners did not at first obtain permission before working on the project, MCPS requested the garden be removed. In communications with Lapham, MCPS shared concerns about student safety and attracting pests to the area. As a result, Lapham received a general timeline for the removal. If they did not remove the garden within the time frame, MCPS would remove it, including the handmade signs. While the gardeners still held out hope, on the morning of June 30th, they were greeted by sights of their hard work overturned. It was a devastating blow to the gardeners and the community.

“It was for the kids. Now it will be weeds. My son gained inspiration from it.” —Andre A., community member

For days afterward, neighbors were shocked at seeing their beloved garden removed. While the garden once provided a low level of neighborly surveillance, with its removal, the school dumpsters are again being used for personal use, and old mattresses and broken pieces of furniture litter the perimeter of the farthest edge of the former garden.

“The idea was to bring the neighborhood together,”—Nelson Reyes, original Three Sisters gardener

What was once a cultivated piece of ground that lined the sidewalk with regal sunflowers, various food crops, and information about sustainability is now once again robbed of the beauty and prospective learning opportunities.

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Sign for the Three Sisters PetitionHeather Jauquet/Author

Original Three Sisters Gardner, weed warrior, and community member Steven Sellers Lapham has started a petition to Dr. Monifa B. McKnight, Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools. The petition requests “MCPS to work with adult volunteers, school staff, and officials–as partners–to figure out a way to establish a gardening project that would support the elementary curriculum, integrating math and literacy with lessons about where food comes from (science and history), while improving this plot of land and reducing carbon emissions.”

Share your thoughts. Should the garden at Strawberry Knoll be reinstated? Will you sign the petition? Let me know in the comments.

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Certified educator K-12 and Reading Specialist with a focus on the adolescent brain. I write about how educational decisions affect parents, students, and staff. As an educator and parent I also focus on community events for the whole family.

MD
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