A member of the Magistri, he taught science and coached wrestling at Pingry from 1957-1994.
After serving for nine years as a flourishing cultivator of fruits and veggies, outdoor classroom, and laboratory for Pingry's young students—not to mention enduring construction during the recent Short Hills Campus modernization—the Lower School garden was looking a bit disheveled this past spring. The garden beds, which once sprouted lettuce, strawberries, potatoes, corn, and broccoli, needed replacing. Other areas needed repurposing to enhance the curricular needs of faculty. Kindergarten-Grade 2 science teacher Heather Smith P '16, who first created the garden with Grade 3 teacher Patti Euwer P '97 in 2010, was on the case.
During a pumpkin unit with Kindergartners last fall, in which Ms. Smith collaborated with the Art Department and used the garden as a studio, of sorts, she began to ponder the possibilities. "I wanted to make the garden even more usable, not just to enhance the science and art curriculum, but also as a community-builder for everyone at the Lower School," she says.
She shared her idea with Lower School visual arts teacher Lindsay Baydin P '26, '29 and Systems Administrator Colleen Collins, as well as P.E. teacher Jeff Patten, who earned a degree in Horticulture, and brainstorming began in earnest. Once spring weather arrived, they moved outdoors to implement their plan. The result? Over eight weeks from April to May, thanks to the efforts of a host of Lower School faculty and staff, many working nights and weekends, and students—and in a nod to the very collaborative, interdisciplinary purpose of the space itself—the Big Blue Garden at Short Hills was reborn!
Among the many contributors, Ms. Collins and Mr. Patten built three archways to adorn the space. Facilities Technician Jen Johnston, who loaned a garden sign, showed Ms. Smith her navy blue-painted garden beds at home, which perfectly complemented Ms. Smith's 'Big Blue' theme. With the help of P.E. teacher Brian LaFontaine P '10, '14, Grade 2 students painted all the raised beds the same hue, then filled them with a mixture of coffee-ground soil (for better growing results!) and compost, and planted flowers and vegetables. They also created and painted a rock stream.
Pingry Store Manager Barbara Chilmonik, Mr. LaFontaine, and Lower School Director Dr. Sandy Lizaire-Duff P '25, along with a few other faculty, donated Pingry t-shirts. Mrs. Euwer cut and sewed them into pillow covers, accessorizing all the benches with Pingry pillows. Recently retired Grade 2 teacher Mary Ogden P '10, '12 donated a blue fish fountain. Two navy blue Adirondack chairs were purchased, and Admission Associate Kara Korn P '21, '21, '23 decorated them with hand-made Pingry stencils. Lower School Director of Admission Sheila Ramirez P '01 ,'04, '07 hand stenciled the work benches and served as an extra set of adult hands when students planted. Plans are in the works to restore the handprint-covered rainwater barrel, a vestige of the original garden. Created by the Class of 2022 eight years ago, Ms. Smith hopes it will be refurbished by the very students whose handprints still adorn it!
While the adults purchased the supplies and assembled the big parts, like the raised beds, the students did nearly everything else. "The students have been a tremendous help. This is really their garden," says Ms. Smith. Even the Kindergartners created a video detailing the garden rules, and, along with Grade 2, did much of the planting. "This was really a chance for the Lower School community to work together in a different way," she added.
Whereas the old garden contained all raised beds, the new one boasts three distinct areas, with a fourth to be completed by Ms. Smith this summer: (1) the quiet classroom (a place for reading, whole group discussions, and mindfulness activities), (2) the Big Blue Garden growing area, (3) the tree stump "table" classroom, and (4) the five senses herb garden, a revitalized version of the same feature in the original garden. "This new set-up will allow more than one class to use the garden at a time," she explains.
Lower School faculty, staff, and students are eager to put their new space to good use in the fall. "We are excited to see how working outdoors changes everyone's idea about experiential education and the benefits of being peaceful and quiet in an outdoor space," says Ms. Smith. "We know some little tweaks still need to be made, but we are looking forward to students and faculty coming outside of their classrooms and using our beautiful campus more. I also hope it will be used by the faculty to spend time interacting—maybe having team meetings outside, or just sitting on one of the benches to chat with a colleague."
While many on the Short Hills Campus contributed to its renovation, a special thanks to the official Big Blue Garden Crew!
Photos, top to bottom: Mrs. Smith introduces students to the redesigned Big Blue Garden; a view of the garden behind the school, with the painted-blue rock stream in the foreground; a Lower School student takes advantage of the garden's quiet reading benches.
Contact: Andrea Dawson, Senior Writer, email@example.com