Meet Mary Charlton, Arcadian of the Month (see also: panda keeper)

It was hard to get June’s Arcadian of the month to sit still long enough to answer some of our questions--and not because she typically runs 20 miles a week. She is truly a busy woman.

Mary Charlton in the Arcadia Groundhog Garden -- pre-pandemic! 
Nine years after leaving her job as a primate and giant panda keeper at the National Zoo to stay home and raise a family, Mary Charlton is a cherished member of the Arcadia family. She came to us by way of Stratford Landing Elementary School where she’s the Outdoor Learning Coordinator and Garden Teacher. Last Spring Arcadia’s outreach and education coordinator Juan Pablo Echeverria visited schools in the Route 1 corridor to assess their gardens for assistance, and asked for a tour of SLES’ outdoor space.
"I honestly didn't want to take the time to give anyone a tour of the garden --I didn't realize what he was looking for,” she admitted.

But she quickly came to understand what Juan Pablo was bringing to her program -- expert growing guidance, educational resources, and an additional set of hands.  Being affiliated with Arcadia has made a huge difference in the garden classroom, Mary says: "Just having someone else to bounce ideas off of--from planting to tending-- is valuable.”

“He [Juan Pablo] even helped water all summer. He shows up and works, and he’s a bit of a rogue gardener too. I look around sometimes and see a zinnia or a pepper growing that I am sure I didn’t plant--and I smile."

A November 2018 grant to Stratford Landing funded horticultural therapy in the garden at school --every one of the 800 children at SLES has had a hand in planting, prepping or tending that garden--and the resulting produce is distributed at a free farmers market at Gum Springs Community Center. Most of the children who participate in the free and reduced lunch program at SLES live in the vicinity of Gum Springs, and the vegetables she grew in the space tucked between buildings at school went home with the students. “We wanted to make sure the kids had access to fresh produce,” she smiled. It made sense to Mary to reward them with the literal fruits of their labor.

When COVID-19 closed Fairfax County Public Schools, one of her first concerns was for the garden and subsequently the free farmers market--where would the families get extra produce if the school and the garden were closed? Ever resourceful, she found a donor to fund produce boxes for a few weeks, teaming up with Arcadia to continue the program through the rest of the summer with a grant from Act for Alexandria.

Now she and a few volunteers and Arcadia staff distribute 66 boxes of produce a week at Gum Springs Community Center. Each box has enough produce to feed a family of four for a week, and they are supplemented with bags of fresh greens from Arcadia each week--kale, collards, spinach, ovation greens.
At Gum Springs, waiting for the students' families
She looks forward to the distribution each week, despite the amount of work it entails.

“It’s great to see the kids--I call them my kids-- sometimes when their parents come to pick up the produce,” she said. “It’s important for me to see they’re still getting healthy, local food to supplement their meals even though school is closed.”

Arcadia's farmers take pride in contributing to the weekly "market."

“A few weeks ago [Arcadia Farmer] Katherine gave us extra seedlings to give away at Gum Springs the reception was overwhelming,” Mary said, emotion in her voice. “It was so neat to talk to people about their own gardens and where they'd grow these plants. After weeks of being socially distant during the produce pick ups, we suddenly had a commonality--tomatillo, tomato and pepper seedlings closed the gap.”

Mary is more than just one of the teachers affiliated with the education program -- she’s become a fixture at Arcadia events and work days.

Mary, Farm Education Director Ivy, and Veteran Incubator Farmer Jennie take a break last summer

“Mary is always willing to lend a hand --even before she knows what you need help with,” said Ivy Mitchell, Arcadia’s Farm Education Director. “She’s usually the first to arrive and the last to leave. Arcadia could not function without good humans like her.”

She knows all of the farmers and staff, and she’s never afraid to show up and work hard for an hour --or four. And in just one short year of working with Mary, it seems like she’s been here forever. She’s FARMily.

“I love being here. I love the mission and the people and how passionate everyone is--but I love being on a farm,” she enthused. “I grew up visiting my grandpa's small farm in Chesterfield and I miss it sometimes. Arcadia brings that back.”

Because of the pandemic -- and the importance of keeping Arcadia's farm staff healthy -- the farm is closed to visitors and the public this year, and her girls grumble when they learn Mom’s day away from home included a visit to the fields at Dogue to pick up her farm share.

“I miss bringing my girls out to the farm--I know it's closed because of COVID but I think it's important for them to see where food comes from,” she said. "They loved walking the fields and tasting things throughout the season last year--we’ll be back when COVID clears.”

Until then we get to see her every Friday afternoon when she stops just inside the farm gate to pick up her shares. Someone asked,  why would an avid gardener pay for 25 weeks of fresh vegetables?

“I signed up for the CSA to support Arcadia and the people I know who work so hard on the farm and my family loves the fresh food,” she said. “Where else am I going to get Hakurei turnips?”

Now we know. Thanks shallot, Mary --we couldn’t do it without you!