Marina Heppenstall
Environmental Internship

Seattle Tilth Association June-Aug 2005

Seattle Tilth was created in 1978 as a branch of Washington Tilth Association and is an organization designed to educate people about organic gardening and urban ecology. In doing so, it seeks to build a healthy community and urban environment that cares about conserving natural resources and supporting local food systems. To achieve this goal Tilth offers over 150 different programs and offshoots from demonstration gardens, summer camps, children's education programs, a natural lawn and garden hotline, "master composter" and soil building training, and annual plants sales and harvest fairs. The organization is run by twelve paid staff members as well as a volunteer board. Tilth is also made possible by the hundred or so volunteers who help in the garden and with special events each year. Funding comes from a variety of sources including grants, contracts, contributors, program fees and plant sales.
My work at Tilth was divided into two main projects: the demonstration garden and the children’s garden. Between the two I usually worked once or twice a week for three to seven hours each visit and totaled fifty hours for the internship.

There are two demonstration gardens open to community volunteers to visit or work in. Twice a week work parties meet to work in the gardens along side Tilth employees. Each work party has a different focus and volunteers learn about organic gardening and the theme of the day by "getting down and dirty" working in the gardens. Themes that I participated in included: composting, mulching, harvesting, introducing native wildlife into the garden, and pruning. All experience levels are encouraged to volunteer. I encountered people with a wide range of skills from those who had gardens of their own with lots of gardening experience to those who had never picked up a trowel. I think that the demonstration gardens are one of the best ways that Tilth involves community members because many people in the city do not have the time or space to have a garden of their own. Working in the demonstration garden as an intern I did the same things as all of the other community volunteers; weeded, pruned, transplanted, prepared beds, mulched and sifted and prepared compost.

Each work party was usually led by one of the employees who gave volunteers and interns directions, pointers and information as we worked. There was no real formal education process but rather a "learn as you go" environment. The leaders were very open to answering any questions we had and almost always had an appropriate answer. Working in the garden I learned a lot about different organic gardening techniques like when and how to transplant different plants, how to build compost, plants that should be planted next to each other, and diseases certain plants are susceptible to and how to avoid them. When harvesting time came, volunteers also got to help harvest and bring some of the produce home. Aside from the three paid employees that work in the demo garden, the garden is maintained pretty much all by volunteer help so having inters and volunteers is crucial to the success of the organization.
Another way Tilth seeks to get the community involved is through more formal workshops and lectures offered at their site. Workshops held while I was at Tilth included permaculture 101, how to raise chickens in a city, and making an herb spiral. Although I was unable to attend any of these classes, I did help to prepare for them.

One of my favorite jobs at Tilth was working in the children’s garden. This is a smaller, separate garden from the demo garden that is for children's camps during the summer and school education programs during the rest of the year. I was a leader for the summer day camps and worked with kids from two to eight years old. I lead kids in activities such as weeding, learning to use tools, planting seeds, hunting for slugs and other bugs, and writing or drawing to reflect on their time in the garden. I also taught about the different plants and animals in the garden, composting and other basic ecology topics. I liked working in the children’s garden because the kids were very interested in what we were doing and it was rewarding to see them (especially the older ones) talk about how gardens are important for people, communities and the plants and animals that are a part of them.
Aside from the demo and children’s gardens I did not partake in any of the other aspects of Tilth such as administration, or other programs and workshops.

I would have liked to see how successful their community outreach programs were and who most of their programs targeted. I know that they have one program for at risk youth which seems to be a great way to include different types of people but I would like to see them reach out to this sort of community more often. Another challenge I faced was the feeling that the children’s garden often seemed over staffed. It is wonderful that there are so many volunteers who want to work there but I often felt like my presence was not necessarily always needed, and I although my time there was enjoyable it could have been better spent doing something that wasn’t already being accomplished.

Overall I had an enjoyable experience with my internship. I would recommend this as an internship to someone who is interested in learning about organic gardening (if you work in the demo garden) or to those who enjoy working with kids and enjoy doing environmental education (working in the children's garden). However, I did not learn very much about the workings of the organization or any sort of typical "career preparation" such as grant writing, networking or administration skills. Although I did not have those kinds of traditional experiences I did enjoy the work I did and it opened up a lot of other areas for me to research and projects for me to do on my own. One of the most valuable things I got out of this internship was the idea to start a community composting program in my community. I researched how other communities, businesses and schools started composting programs and talked to a man who ran pilot project in Seattle that tested different composting systems and programs at various schools, stores and restaurants. He gave me some information about the pros and cons different businesses encountered. I was unable to actually start any sort of program of my own but I did begin the research.

It was also interesting for me to see an organization working to protect the environment and support local food systems in an urban setting. I come from place where it is relatively easy to have a garden of my own and there are a lot of opportunities to support other local practices, but I am very interested in how cities and areas without available land resources can also develop more sustainable living practices. Tilth is one organization that is working to integrate this into an urban community and I believe that they are doing so.