School Gardens

Rich Harvest


School-garden projects are blossoming all over

By Paula Harris

IT’S AUGUST and La Tercera Elementary School in Petaluma is closed for summer vacation, but the campus garden is bustling with activity this mellow morning. Several students and parents scurry among the tall golden sunflowers in the butterfly and hummingbird habitat area, intent on their various tasks: deadheading plants, collecting seeds, watering the herbs, and amending the soil.

“I love it here,” says Becky Dunaway, an outgoing 8-year-old with long dark hair and a quick smile, as she digs in the dirt. “We plant seeds and watch the plants grow. If they’re vegetables, we get to eat them. If they’re flowers, we get to take the seeds and plant them and watch them grow all over again.”

These families are “baby-sitting” the school garden, which organizers say has in two years gone from a committee-based concept to an award-winning community project, which is the pride of students and parents alike.

This year, La Tercera was one of 300 schools nationally to win the National Gardening Association Youth Garden Grant. The project is funded by donations from county businesses.

“Our garden is in the lush and blooming shape it’s in right now because 20 families volunteer to come in and care for it during the summer vacation,” says Denise Ward, a parent volunteer who became school garden director when the project began in 1997.

Ward says all the school’s students, grades K-6, help care for the garden and learn valuable lessons from doing so, and she laments the lack of state dollars for such projects. “The state should supply more funding and understand that in nurturing and caring for things, children are less likely to hurt themselves or the world around them,” she says. “Your mind is in a different place when you’re gardening and growing something.”

TINA POLES, school-garden teacher trainer for the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, which helps public and private schools in Sonoma County start and sustain organic gardens, agrees. “The school garden is a kind of a growing place that tends to lend itself to being very respectful of life and our processes, and I think children sense that,” Poles says. “In a well-done program, the garden is a place to just be. Sure, you can do lessons in it, but it’s also a place to just be and do work, move barrels of dirt, and make compost piles, and there’s an end product. It’s very concrete– you do this and things happen.

“Kids really love that–they don’t have a lot of that in their lives.”

Poles has seen transformations in students as they work on the garden projects. “It seems to calm children down who need to be calmed down, and it excites children who are passive,” she says.

In addition, Poles observes, the garden is a healing place for children who may live in a small apartment or who haven’t had much experience with nature and being outside. “[The garden] is an incredibly good antidote to too much television and too many video games,” she says. “You can’t do those things in the school garden, so in some ways you’re saved from all that stuff.”

For the past two years, the OAEC has offered a five-day residential training program for local schoolteachers and parents (of kids from preschool to high school) who are interested in creating and maintaining a school garden. A recent workshop was attended by teachers from a dozen local schools planning to add a school-garden project to their curricula.

To help nurture this growing trend, the OAEC has also established a Sonoma County School Garden Resource Network. “This links people who do horticultural work in Sonoma County with schools,” explains Poles.

The network offers technical assistance, donations of materials, and other support services. Among member organizations are the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the Sonoma County Office of Education, the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, and Sonoma County Jail Industries.

NEXT SUMMER, the network will host a national school-garden project symposium at Sonoma State University, which will include a variety of speakers on the topic. The OAEC teacher-training program, offered twice yearly, consists of hands-on organic gardening sessions; an examination of curriculum development to see how the garden can fulfill state-mandated curricula at all grade levels (the garden is an outdoor laboratory that can provide a natural setting for integrated curricula); a course in nutrition, including a garden harvest lunch; and a course in teaching art in the garden.

Speakers from Occidental’s Harmony Elementary School, which has maintained a very successful school garden for several years, share their knowledge and ideas with the OAEC trainees. The goal is that the students should be part of the entire design process and feel total ownership of their new garden.

Intertwined throughout the program is information about fundraising for gardens and networking with the community to keep the project alive. School must often rely on grants and donations to keep the garden going. “It’s a constant struggle, but people in community have been very generous,” says Poles.

One such community member is Joan Betts, who last year handed out more than $60,000 worth of plants to local schools. As part of her Master Gardener Project at SSU, Betts operates Cinderella Nursery, a non-commercial facility near Rohnert Park. She works with companies such as Home Depot to provide schools with much-needed greenery. “We get last week’s plants,” she says with a laugh. “The reps pull everything that’s not premium off the shelves because people insist on everything in perfect bloom–so we pick ’em up.”

Betts tends to peaked plants, restores their health, and donates them to school gardens and other youth-garden projects. “Gardening is a necessary tool for learning,” says Betts. “Children need to understand the environment, and they learn through growing things. If they can respect growing things, they can better respect the land and make better environmental decisions in the future.” *

From the August 12-18, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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