Friends in Focus – Tessa

This month we’d like to introduce you to Tessa. Tessa started gardening when she was 7
years old, using an old sandbox filled with dirt – “Watching my plants sprout and grow
into something I could eat seemed like magic.” As a teacher of Plant Science courses in
Bellingham Public Schools’ CTE program, she hopes to pass on that sense of wonder and
glee that she felt onto her students. Tessa and her students have been a part of the
Chuckanut Center community for the last several years. We love having them – they
bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the garden, even on the coldest and dreariest of

Any background information or bio that you’d like to share?
I teach CTE (Career and Technical Education) Plant Science courses at all four Bellingham
middle schools. This course was a new addition to Bellingham’s CTE program last year
and I am enjoying developing the curriculum and collaborating with my Common
Threads partners to build on garden infrastructure and increase the cross-district
potential of our school gardens, such as having Plant Science students propagate starts
for elementary school gardens across the district. I also have my own homestead garden
in Everson where I grow food with my two young children.

How long have you been gardening? 
Growing up in a suburban neighborhood outside of Portland, Oregon, my first garden
was an old sandbox filled with dirt. An incredibly productive sandbox! At age 7 watching
my plants sprout and grow into something I could eat seemed like magic. It still often
does. And that sense of wonder and glee is what I hope to pass on to my students. Later,
as a young adult, I interned at small organic farms in Ireland and Alaska before landing
in Bellingham as an AmeriCorps Volunteer with Common Threads Farm. I absolutely
loved garden education and got to break ground in several school gardens, including the
Whatcom Middle School garden, which I am now serving again in my new capacity as
Plant Science Teacher.

What have been some of your biggest challenges in the garden? 
School gardens face unique challenges. For one, students aren’t in school at the height
of the growing season, so planning for a more hands-off summer is key.
-Automated watering systems are a must. Plus, they allow us to water at optimal
times (early in the morning or late in the evening) without needing to tie anyone
to a schedule.
-Let mulch do the work! Mulching heavily at the start of summer helps retain
water and suppress weeds.
-The bulk of our gardens will be dedicated to low maintenance crops for fall
harvest. Potatoes, dry beans, winter squash, kale, sunflowers, and nasturtiums
are some of my favorites. Students can harvest and cook with these crops during
class when school is back in session.
-Bringing students back for leadership opportunities over the summer helps keep
gardens strong and students connected. While I can’t pay my middle school
students they absolutely love cooking and eating from the garden, so building a
program that incorporates this might just be the right draw to launch our first
youth garden crew this summer. It’s also why I favor crops that are good for
“grazing” – foods that are easy to enjoy straight off the plant as you work! I’ve
listed a few of my favorites below.
Although this approach has been honed to address issues specific to school gardens I
think many of these strategies are useful to any gardener, especially if you find yourself
feeling overwhelmed with your garden at the height of the growing season.

What do you find most rewarding about your involvement with the Chuckanut
Hands-on experiences are key to my program and getting students into the garden
always feels good. I’ve watched them brave cold rainy days, decimate invasive
blackberries, carefully plant seedlings, and taste produce fresh off the vine. I love
watching my students work together or dive into a task on their own. When they walk
away feeling proud, that is the best! The gardening experience is a little different at
each school I serve, and I really love the dynamic here at Fairhaven. Having students
participate in the Chuckanut Center garden helps them feel connected to their
community. It’s a great opportunity for students to interact directly with community
members and contribute to something with real world impacts.

What is one piece of advice you would give someone who has very little experience
growing their own food? 

Opt for variety and experiment constantly! Seasons are always variable, and especially
with the effects of climate change it’s hard to predict what’s going to thrive and what
won’t in a given year. Peas are always reliable, right? Sure, except when they aren’t. But
that’s okay, maybe you’ll get a bumper crop of beans or prolific cucumbers.
Microclimates are a real thing too. Try a few varieties of each crop and eventually you’ll
find the ones that do best in your particular space. Plus, trying new varieties and new
gardening techniques keeps it fun and interesting!

Any favorite resources? 
-The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food: Step-by-Step Vegetable Gardening for
Everyone, Joseph Tychonievich (Author) and Liz Anna Kozik (Illustrator)
This non-fiction graphic novel is a fun way to learn all the introductory lessons
about gardening!
-Tilth Alliance’s Maritime Northwest Garden Guide, Carl Elliott (Author) and Rob
Peterson (Author)
A go-to reference guide that is packed with just about everything!
-Garden Raised Bounty’s (GRuB) Wild Foods and Medicines Program
Amazing online resources and classroom curriculum about wild edible and
medicinal plants.
What are you looking forward to growing this year?
For both my own young children and for my students I am really enjoying a variety of
“snacking” sized veggies that are perfect for fresh eating straight out of the garden.
-Sandita Cucumber – Mexican Sour Gherkin (Uprising Seeds)
-Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry (Uprising Seeds)
-Peacevine Cherry Tomatoes (Peace Seeds)
-Miniature Red and Miniature Yellow Bell Peppers (Territorial Seeds)
-Mini-Me Cucumbers (Territorial Seeds)