A Day in the Life of a Garden Educator: Marla Guggenheimer

Marla Guggenheimer

If you’re coming over to my house for the first time, you’ll probably be asked the question, “Do you want to see my worms?” No, I’m not talking about intestinal parasites. I’m talking about compost! I have a plastic tub in my kitchen filled with newspaper, food scraps and, you guessed it, worms! These red wigglers, or Eisenia fetida (a close cousin of the common earthworm), love munching on the fruit and vegetable scraps from my kitchen. The waste they expel after digesting the food collects at the bottom of the tub and can be used as a nutritious soil mixture for plants called compost. Compost has all of the things plants love like phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, and many other micronutrients that plants need to grow. If you open the lid to my worm composting bin, you won’t get bombarded with the smell of rotten food or feces. The compost these worms create smells rich and earthy. Who knew worm poop could be so amazing!?



Left: Marla with a fresh harvest


Talking about worms is only one part of my job as a Garden Educator with Big Green Chicago. Big Green is a national non-profit organization with the mission of connecting kids to real food through a network of Learning Gardens and food literacy programs. Big Green Learning Gardens are located all over the country from Los Angeles, California to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here in Chicago, we partner with Chicago Public Schools to support 200 Learning Gardens in the Chicago Public School system. My main job as a Garden Educator is to work with about 30 schools (Pre-K through 12) helping educators, administrators, students, and community members use the Learning Garden to grow, share, and celebrate fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, that means that I’m out in the garden leading a Planting or Harvest Day with students. Other times, it means I’m meeting with teachers, principals, or other community members to review garden-related resources and develop a strategy for the upcoming growing season. I also collaborate with other Garden Educators on my team to lead seasonal workshops where Learning Gardeners can practice the skills they’ll need for planting, harvesting, and of course eating the amazing produce that will come out of their Learning Gardens. I love getting to share my passions for environmental and nutrition education by teaching others about things like worms, the parts of a seed, or how dark leafy greens have the most nutrient bang for your buck. It’s great to experience minds of all ages having that “ah-ha!” moment that comes with learning something new.

My path to becoming a Garden Educator started all the way back in high school where I first discovered my love for biological and earth sciences. My freshman year Biology teacher, Mrs. Griffith, and my junior year Anatomy and Physiology teacher, Dr. Birdi, are two women I credit for introducing me to the amazing world of hands-on science education. After graduating high school, I went on to get my Bachelor of Arts degree in Individualized Studies from Miami University of Ohio. The Individualized Studies program allowed me to tailor my major to include all the subjects I was passionate about: environmental science, early-childhood education, and social justice. During college, I worked on organic farms (including one in Luxembourg!) and volunteered for an after-school Earth Club at the local elementary school. When I graduated college, I moved to Great Falls, Montana to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA Summer Associate with Growing Gardens from Garbage. In this role, I worked with two other AmeriCorps Service Members to coordinate and lead a Summer in the Garden program for underserved youth. I then moved to Flagstaff, Arizona where I served for a year as the FoodCorps AmeriCorps Service Member at Killip Elementary, managing the school garden and teaching health and nutrition classes. These field and classroom experiences helped prepare me for my job as a Garden Educator with Big Green.




Left: Students at Killip Elementary give a thumbs up after taste testing harvested beets.








Right: The Garden Club at Roosevelt High School harvests 2 lbs of kale from their garden!




I enjoy the shock value that comes with teaching people that worms don’t have eyes or that potatoes are modified stems (not roots!), but that isn’t what motivates me to do this work. What drives me is a deep desire to empower young people with the knowledge and skills they need to make change in their communities. I love being able to provide opportunities for people (myself included) to have new experiences that connect them to the larger world. Food plays an integral role in everyone’s life. From health to culture to environmental impacts, growing food is just one of the ways we can learn more about how to care for ourselves, our communities, and the Earth we all call home.






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