Drawing of Taylor Hicks Garden

Passionate and enthusiastic are two words that fully describe Prescott resident Lesley Alward — especially when it comes to any project that she is involved in.

Having moved to Prescott in 2002 to care for her ailing father, Lesley left the year-round agricultural climate of the East Bay near Berkley, California, where “you basically just put in a plant in the ground, and it grows,” she said.

Coming from a very creative and artistic family — including sculptures, painters, stain glass design and more — Lesley found her “palette” in the world around her.

“Growing up where we did, and with two siblings in close age, my mother was constantly shooing us outside to get from under foot, but also to explore and play in nature.”

It was later, while trying to claim her advocation and passion, that Lesley began working in the field of landscape architecture and design.

“I was working for my cousin, and later began leading crews for a pay rate that was less than desirable, and so I went off on my own, and opened Lesley Alward Landscape Design,” she said.

“It was a really exciting time, and the neighborhoods I was working in were real neighborhoods, where if I was installing a landscape or garden, people would stop as they passed and I would describe what I was doing in reference to the plants and the process. It was really enjoyable and fulfilling.”

Upon settling in Prescott, Lesley found that the soil and climate in Prescott was much different and more challenging than her previous surroundings where subtropical and subarctic plants were able to thrive.

“The alkaline in the soil and Prescott as well as the seasonal changes, make for a very challenging gardening experience, until you figure it out,” Lesley said.

It was her mother who brought the master gardners class that is offered through the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension to Lesley’s attention. “I signed up for the master gardeners class and began completing my required 50 hours of instruction,” she added.

Deciding to set the landscape design business aside, she entered the field of real estate, but never left her passion for nature and gardening. Instead, she became a volunteer at the Highlands Center for Natural History, and is currently in the process of completing her first self-designed school garden — the Taylor Hicks Schoolyard Habitat at Taylor Hicks Elementary through the center’s school garden program.

In layman’s terms, the Highlands Center approaches schools to offer a science-based program involving creating and maintaining school gardens to be used as learning centers and gathering spaces.

The center has created a three-year program in which it offers instruction and oversight by providing an onsite habitat coordinator who oversees the creation of the gardens, to ultimately pass the program on to the schools themselves through a phased-in program. The gardens are used as leaning centers for students in a variety of forms. For some it is their first experience of learning where food comes from, and the importance of maintaining a balance between nature and ourselves.

“The students utilize all aspects of core education when working in the gardens,” Lesley says. “There’s the science aspect where you learn to understand the process of planting, nurturing and harvesting, but also how climate affects plants and our own existence.

“Kids are able to look at a plot, determine the square footage, and through hands-on experiences, learn the appreciation of nurturing and experiencing nature.”

The current project at Taylor Hicks Elementary is located front and center of the school and will include a terraced garden with hardscapes as well as a multi-use amphitheater that can be used by teachers as an instructional venue, and small presentations through the school.

“With Prescott Unified School District having open campuses, after-school hours, the public will be able to access the garden and benefit from this program as well,” she said.

With a space of more than 5,000 square feet, Lesley and the Highlands Center are already in the process of doing the “heavy lifting” so to speak with assistance from Embry-Riddle students, and have made strides in forming the base for the garden to follow.

“The wildflower beds have been turned, the terraces are completed, and other aspects of the pre-work, so to speak, have been completed,” she said.

“This is really a community school garden, and as such, relies on community donations of time and financial support to see it be fulfilled,” Lesley said.

For more information on school habitat gardens, to make financial or in-kind donations, or to volunteer time, visit Highlandscenter.org.

Barry Barbe owns the El Gato Azul and Torme restaurants in Prescott, and is the energy and insight behind the Prescott Palette. He also has a radio show, the Prescott Palette, on KQNA 1130 AM, Saturdays at noon. Email: Prespalette@gmail.com.

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