Six years ago Rick and I had just purchased this 151 year old house and two vacant plots of land adjacent to the south. I knew I wanted a garden, Rick wanted a garden. I’ve posted about some of those compromises previously. But things changed five years ago when I started my job at PAST Foundation. I was hired as a project manager for the SOIL program that PAST was running at 9 school sites across Ohio. SOIL stands for STEM Outdoor Learning Lab. The grand vision of the SOIL grant was to get students, teachers, and community out of the classroom and into nature. Teachers and students could apply STEM teaching and learning with problem-solving skills. I was hired to consult and guide teachers, administrators, and community partners through the process of developing these outdoor garden innovation areas.

It was inevitable that some of that exposure, experience, and tech would find it’s way back to Mezzacello. I worked the SOIL grant for a solid year watching schools and teachers make choices that made little sense from a practical point of view and ultimately would be unsustainable. Because I am naturally curious and my husband is a saint, I started implementing some of the advice I was offering to these schools at Mezzacello. Systems for developing and transforming first and grass from hard packed urban landfill into rich sustainable soil, schemes for efficiently getting water to gardens and animals, and structures for growing food, raising animals, and securing equipment in an urban space.

There were three BIG differences between my “SOIL” garden and the nine facilities I helped establish around Ohio. The first was that I made choices that were conducive to creating a complete ecosystem and not just an on site “garden”. The next was that I did not abandon my garden project over the summer and expect it to still be viable the next year (school culture mandates that kids don’t go to school in summer when a garden needs a gardener most). And finally I picked great community partners to work with: my husband and his formal gardens and the PAST Foundation.

Rick’s formal gardens provided me an outlet for my compost, manure, tools, water, technology, and growing structures. PAST Foundation provided me with support, knowledge, insight, and most important encouragement. The result: an incredibly robust and effective SOIL facility that pretty much runs itself and requires shockingly little outside resources to maintain and operate.

That is why my educational mission is so important to me. Yes it is in my DNA to want to teach and innovate. But the roots of that passion come from my time spent modeling best practices for educators and schools five years ago; the SOIL project. I am NOT disparaging schools and teachers. I am simply stating that I took the original premise of the SOIL program to its logical extreme. And it is still going strong and remains a unique and remarkably verdant testament to the Design Cycle and transdisciplinary problem-based Learning that PAST Foundation advocates for. In short, I am the change I want to see in the world.

The yard in 2013 and the enclosed, sustainable ecosystems today. Jim Bruner | Mezzacello
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