Exploring the Small Farms of Bainbridge Island – Wardwell Farm – Nature and Garden Inspired Education Through Creativity

Wardwell Farm with logoNestled on a small road, just 2.5 miles from downtown Winslow, sits a 7-plus acre property with vegetable gardens, an orchard, goat and chicken enclosures, quaint buildings surrounded by tall shade trees, gently rolling open grassland, spaces for volleyball, pickleball, and a nature trail that crosses a gentle stream and meanders through a lush forest. It was the ideal location for an outdoor educational space that would eventually become Wardwell Farm, a non-profit organization that provides a nature-based curriculum for children and adults in the form of farm camps, field trips, after school programs and Special Education focused workshops and programming.

Wardwell Farm is the creation of Erin Combs, a para-educator in Special Education at Ordway Elementary. Having been born and raised in rural Maine, Erin spent much of her youth outdoors, working in the garden and exploring her surroundings. She continued her love of gardening during college, working in her alma mater’s greenhouse, and later in a landscape garden/build space in New York City. In addition, she ran garden education workshops and events while teaching in Connecticut. After moving to Bainbridge with her three children and dog Diego in 2021, she went in search of the perfect island property to call home, but it also needed to do double-duty and have space for Erin to create a nature-inspired educational environment where she could share her knowledge and expertise with children and adults in a farm-like setting.

As luck would have it, Erin found an off-market property, which had been a rental for many years. The buildings and grounds were in usable condition, but would require some work. Erin’s parents had also moved to the island and with their help, they began renovations.

Wardwell Farm Garden and chickens - image credits Erin Combs and Margaret MillmoreWhen I arrived at Wardwell, I was greeted by the rustling sounds of the breeze through the large shade trees, the clucking of chickens and the bleating “hellos” of the young goats. Erin welcomed me to the property and we headed towards a barn-like building, where Rachel Knudson, owner of Scrappy Art Lab, was waiting. Rachel and Erin were introduced by Matilda Thulin, executive director of Stephen’s House/Bainbridge Island Special Needs Foundation (more on that in a moment) and began collaborating at Wardwell in March of this year.

The tour began in the garden, where Erin explained that the property came with an abundance of left-over and discarded materials from the previous occupants, such as fencing, slabs of live-edge wood, and miscellaneous lumber, and much like Rachel, Erin loves to reuse and recycle whenever possible. “The garden space was built out with help from my father in the early spring of 2022. We utilized every recycled piece of wood on the premises to get it going,” Erin said.

Wardwell Farm handmade signsA fenced-in enclosure was created and planters were built. A small outbuilding, which was there when Erin bought the property, would become the “classroom” and Erin’s dad, using the live-edge wood found on the property, constructed a few tables and benches for craft projects and outdoor lunches when the weather allowed for it. The previous tenant had built a chicken coop, and it now houses her 11 hens and 12 chicks. Handmade signs, created by Erin’s daughter, can be found throughout the garden.

By the spring of 2022, Erin was ready to begin offering small-scale after-school and summer camp classes for children, where they learned basic gardening, growing seed starts, composting, garden snacking, crafting, tinkering and light woodworking. They also learned about caring for the chickens and collecting eggs. This year, they’re growing pumpkins, carrots, squash, chard, mint, beets, and much more. There are layers of gratification working in the garden, Erin said, from building the planter beds, sowing the seeds, and harvesting and eating what you’ve grown—it’s a process her campers get a great deal of satisfaction from.

Last year Erin’s dad, with the help of her Farm Camp kids, built a farm stand to share their autumn bounty, and they’re excited to bring it back this year.

Then came the goats… “My teenage daughter had been researching goat rescue ever since we arrived on BI. She had created a wonderful PowerPoint presentation to ‘sell’ me on the idea of goat ownership,” Erin explained. Her daughter was captivated by the work of Puget Sound Goat Rescue (PSGR) and sent Erin “daily precious photos” from their website.

Wardwell Farm goats - Ziggy, Stardust, Harvey and Thor“That was just the beginning,” Erin said. Through her Ordway community, she was introduced to Michele Muffoletto, who owns The Wanderers’ Nest, and has several rescued goats in residence. Michele had worked closely with PSGR, and was happy to step in and advise Erin and her family. In the summer of 2022, one of Erin’s Ordway third graders offered two of her goats to get them started. “She and her lovely family were so sweet and so helpful… they got me off on the right track with my first pair of brother and sister babies,” which they named Ziggy and Stardust. With the help of her dad, a goat house and paddock were built and the sibling kids had a new home. This past April, Erin reached out to PSGR, and the director there connected her with an adorable pair of kid-friendly Nigerian Dwarf goats, “to round out my sweet little herd… We have loved Harvey and Thor from the moment we shuttled them back from Maple Valley on the ferry in my mom’s car!”

Stephen's House friends planting beansIn the fall of 2022, the Ordway community stepped up again, and introduced Erin to Matilda Thulin. “She came to my property to see if it would be a good fit for her Stephen’s House programming and we hit it off on the spot.” From there, Erin invited a group of Stephen’s House members and a small crew of her weekly after school Farm Camp kids to Wardwell. The Stephen’s House members loved the experience and the farm has been hosting them weekly ever since.

The tour continued through open grassland, which is surrounded by a lush forest. As we went, Erin pointed out the orchard, where many of the fruit trees had been relocated from the garden area in order to build out space for the goats. Last year, one of her volunteer counselors brought an apple press to the farm and taught the campers how to make apple sauce.

Wardwell Farm - image credits Margaret Millmore and Erin CombsThe next stop was a large concrete slab and covered patio, that sits in the middle of the open grassland. The slab and part of the patio structure had originally been used as the foundation for a small horse barn, and later a woodworking space for the former tenant. Like most things at Wardwell, it’s been cleverly repurposed, and now has multiple uses. The covered area features a summer kitchen and will provide a shady space for kids to gather this summer to create and eat garden inspired snacks. In addition, the open area can be used for pickleball or shooting hoops, and Erin and Rachel have plans for a puppet theater this summer.

Following a well-worn path through the tall grass and into the forest beyond, Erin and Rachel explained that the forest is a particular favorite for the kids, they love to walk the trail, and even volunteer to help maintain it. They enjoy learning about the native plants and their uses, as well as collecting sticks, pinecones, feathers and other forest tidbits for craft projects. As we came to a gentle stream, remnants of a quaint little ferry house, built during a previous craft session, sat on the bank.

Back at the main farm buildings, Erin and Rachel shared how they met through Matilda Thulin. Rachel partners with various organizations, such as Stephen’s House and KiDiMu to provide on-site workshops, and Matilda was aware that she was interested in finding an indoor/outdoor farm environment to seamlessly blend more natural materials into the curriculum, and spend more time outside, yet still have an indoor classroom space. It wouldn’t be long before a wonderful partnership emerged, and Erin and Rachel converted the barn-like structure into the new “Scrappy Art Lab” studio at Wardwell.

Scrappy Art Lab Studio at Wardwell FarmAside from a little paint and new flooring, which Erin installed herself, the open space studio was ready to move into and Scrappy Art Lab had a new home. The space is also much larger than Erin’s original “classroom” inside the garden enclosure (which is still used for small-scale projects in the garden), and allows for multiple stations to be set up for various activities. It also provides a nice respite when the weather is inclement.

While Erin, (now) with help from Rachel, creates a themed curriculum for her classes and camps, its approached in an organic manner. As Rachel noted, it can be very “emergent” and when a teachable moment presents itself, they switch gears, “the plan is to be spontaneous.”

Scrappy on the Farm! Camps for multiple ages and skill sets – Activities include nature exploring, crafting, digging, composting, garden snacking, gardening, seed starts, trail tending, playing & tinkering, wood working, egg collecting in the coop, and goat visits.

Although the 2023 Summer Camp season is full, they have an amazing lineup of fun activities in store, see below for a taste of what they offer:

  • July 5-7 (No Mon/Tues) – Sensational Puppet Theater – build characters – create puppets – build a stage – write a script – garden performance
  • July 10-14 – Whimsical Woodland Creatures – Fairies and Gnomes – tiny forest houses – nature crafting – sewing ugly trolls – clay and woodwork
  • July 17-21 – Musical Madness – Garden foraged instruments – garden drum circle – wood scrap guitars – gourd maracas – lemonade infusion station – plus special guests
  • July 24-28 – Wacky Wildlife/Animal Week – Birds of Prey exploration – clay animals – hypertufa garden and forest creations – make a giant nest – animal games
  • July 31-Aug 4 – Bug Off! – Creepy, crawly things – make a bug hotel – ladybug garden release – insect hunting in the woods – buggy crafting in the studio – paint like a spider
  • Aug 21-25 – Chicken Love Week – hen portraiture – hens & chicks succulents – water wall creation – cork boats that float – chicken chess in the garden – melon parfaits for all

The farm is always evolving, and going forward, Erin would like to continue and expand upon the community relationships she’s developed. She’d like to focus on more community outreach through the local school system, including homeschoolers, to provide field trip opportunities and more workshops for those with special needs/education requirements. She’d also like to partner with community members to bring more farmers, cooks and artists to the farm for classes and workshops. In addition, she’d like to ramp up her “counselors in training” camp program for 11- and 12-year-olds. Wardwell Farm is a magical place and you can bet anything that Erin and Rachel will continue to provide outrageously fun activities rooted in nature and creativity.

Wardwell Farm is located at 9200 Wardwell Rd NE, Bainbridge Island WA, 98110 Email: erinbaylis@gmail.com

If you’d like to read more about our ongoing farm series, visit our previous articles: The Wanderers’ Nest Farm – A Nature-based Therapeutic FarmChateau Poulet – Backyard Farming at its Best!,  Friends of the Farms – Commitment to Farmland Protection and Creating a Locally Focused Food System, Johnson Farm, Suyematsu-Bentryn Farm, Morales Farm, the Bainbridge Island Native Food Forest, and Finding Fresh Bainbridge.

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