By Sue Pascoe
Marie Steckmest, known to her students as “Miss Marie,” will receive her second Golden Sparkplug award, this time on behalf of her volunteer efforts at the Marquez Elementary School garden. She has volunteered as a garden teacher the past six years, after becoming a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener.
The Marquez garden program had been run by parents and staff since 1994, but it lacked direction without a constant presence (Steckmest) to oversee teaching, curriculum development, maintenance and fundraising.
“I’ve spent thousands of hours in the best job that I’ve ever had,” Steckmest said. “I was surprised by the award, but thrilled! I love teaching the kids at Marquez about gardening and introducing them to plants and food.”
When Steckmest started, she had only second graders and soon was called “Miss Marie.”
“The gardening program is an evolving one,” she said. “I decided that more grades should have access to gardening and gradually added more classes.”
Last year, Steckmest worked with second through fifth graders. This year the program has added kindergarten and first grade, and she’s striving to tie the garden to the social studies in each grade.
Second graders make salsa after tending the Peter Rabbit Garden, where parsley, tomato, kale, basil, cilantro and onion are grown.
Third graders are in charge of the “Three Sisters” Garden—featuring corn, beans and squash, all grown together in the tradition of Pawnee, Cherokee and Navajo tribes. Children learn that as the corn removes the nitrogen from the soil, the beans replace it, and the cornstalks give beans a place to climb. The squash leaves keep the ground shaded and moist, and also prevent weeds from growing.
Fourth graders work on the Native American Garden, planting native plants that were used by the indigenous peoples, such as California sagebrush, which can be used in tea and helps tame coughs and colds.
Fifth graders oversee the Jeffersonian Garden, where they cultivate heirloom plants and learn about Thomas Jefferson.
Marquez Elementary started with six vegetable gardens on the lower yard and has added seven on the upper yard. There are also native plant areas around the campus for the Native American Garden.
“I think it’s important for kids to know where their food comes from and what it looks like, tastes, feels like and smells like,” Steckmest said. “I especially like when kids try a ‘new’ food, such as broccoli, tomatoes or kale, and like it.
“Also, kids need a chance to dig in the dirt, plant and have freedom to explore in the garden. They seem to like it!”
Steckmest’s first Sparkplug award was in 2005 for launching Palisades Volunteer Week, which urged all Palisadians to give a week of community service. She also started Palisades Cares, which continues to sponsor volunteer activities, such as the School Supply Drive in the fall and now the holiday Toy Drive.
In 2008, Steckmest was named Citizen of the Year for her “Green the Palisades” campaign, which involved installing blue recycling bins in the community to encourage recycling.
She and husband Larry have two adult children, Jeff and Lisa, who attended Marquez Elementary, and three grandchildren.
“Our oldest, Julie, 21⁄2, already has a gardening bag with a trowel, rake, gloves and a squirt bottle,” Steckmest said. “She enjoys digging and watering.”
For more information, visit marquezschoolediblegarden.blogspot.com.