Matthew and Damien Zsiros

Penn State Fayette faculty contributes to Menallen School garden restoration

The project will serve as a prototype to establish other outdoor learning environments in the area.

Damien Zsiros, a nursing instructor at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, along with his son Matthew, volunteered to rehabilitate the “Menallen Outdoor Learning Environment” (MOLE) at Menallen Elementary School over the summer of 2018.

MOLE was established in 2009 with a grant secured by Michelle Komacek, a teacher at Menallen. Matthew, now a senior at Uniontown High School, contributed to the maintenance of the garden as a 3rd-grader. He chose to restore the space for his senior project, which requires 50 hours of service, after the space fell into disrepair in recent years.

The Zsiros family was met with challenges in the restoration. The enclosed, 85-foot by 85-foot courtyard is prohibitive — grass clippings and debris had to be hauled away by wheelbarrow. Under the mentorship of Louise Geary, master gardener at the Fayette County Penn State Extension Service, they visited the space weekly to remove weeds, maintain a compost bin, cut grass, transplant raised beds, and more.

“We didn’t realize the amount of work it would take to maintain even a small garden. We couldn’t have done it without Louise Geary,” said Damien. “The Master Gardeners have adopted this project and, together, we have transformed the neglected area into a more serviceable space.”

Matthew Zsiros

Matthew Zsiros at the Menallen Outdoor Learning Environment.

Credit: Damien Zsiros

The restored learning environment now includes a butterfly garden, exercise apparatuses, bird feeders, a seating arrangement and stage, small shrubs and trees, perennial gardens, art displays, and a rain gauge. Maintenance is supported by the master gardeners, PTA fundraising, parent participation and student stewardship programming.

The project, submitted by Geary, won a Search for Excellence award in the category of Innovation at the 2018 Master Gardener State Conference and will advance to the national level.

“We aimed to develop this project as efficiently as possible in order to present it as a prototype for other school districts to duplicate,” said Geary. “With an interdisciplinary approach, we can foster awareness and interest in horticulture and the environment within our community.”