Adventures in a School-Gardening Program

By Pam Denson

Master Gardener

Have you ever thought that you would like to teach gardening to some of our school children? Well, here is the tale of my gardening adventure with Elkhart Intermediate School, and I offer it in the hope that there may be other people who are willing to share some of their time, but more importantly, share themselves and their love of gardening with children in our schools. These are lessons I have learned with the support of a wonderful school staff, my County Extension Agent, and my Anderson County Master Gardener chapter.

I am a Master Gardener and a vegetable specialist in Anderson County, Texas. One year ago, I was approached by Holly Black (County Extension Agent — Family and Consumer Sciences) to develop a gardening and nutrition program with her for the third, fourth and fifth grades at Elkhart Intermediate School. We met with the fifth-grade science teacher Julia Collins and decided that we would teach the class during the science-class period, one day per month for each of the third, fourth, and fifth grades.

Site placement is important. We chose a garden site that was easy to access, within sight of the school sidewalks, but not within easy reach of the sidewalks. It had full sun, with water close by, good air circulation and level ground. We constructed four raised beds, four feet by eight feet and eight inches deep, of cedar planks on woven black-plastic weed barrier. We filled them with three yards of compost.

The cost of this project was minimal. My Master Gardener chapter provided the money for the construction of the raised beds and the compost. Local merchants provided fertilizer, seeds and starter plants. My experience was that our communities want to support our children. I had only to ask and specify that it was for the school, and the answer was always a generous “yes.”

The garden has a raised bed for each grade — third, fourth and fifth — and one extra bed. In the fall and spring, the students in each grade plant their garden with seeds and starter plants. It is my firm belief that their “buy-in” for the program comes from this step. The rows may be a little crooked, but they will surprise you in their ability to remember a month later which tomato plant they planted.

When we thought that the garden would be dormant due to freezing temperatures, Holly scheduled her nutrition-education program (called “Learn Grow, Eat Go”) during the months of December, January and February. I resumed the gardening classes in March after our date of the last average freeze.

So these are the basics of our program. Now, let’s talk about what to look for in your school.

First and foremost, you must have the blessing of the principal at your school as well as the local school board. It is also important to have one teacher who will be willing to spearhead the program at the school when you are not there. I still work part-time, so I am unable to provide daily care of the garden. Hopefully, this teacher is a science teacher with some gardening knowledge — as Julia Collins is for our program in Elkhart. Our program would not have been a success without her ongoing daily support and enthusiasm. She and the teachers in the third and fourth grade classes also provided the discipline needed for a good learning environment. I learned early on that a well-behaved class today does not necessarily mean a silent one!

We gardeners know the awesome producing power of a yellow squash plant or a cherry tomato. I wanted to teach our students that we harvest and use all of our produce to the very best of our ability, especially since so many of our children come to school hungry. We donate all of our produce to a local soup kitchen in Palestine called the Stock Pot. This charity serves a hot lunch to the homeless and the poor five days a week. In turn, these mission workers have written multiple thank-you notes all year long to the students of the school as fresh produce is a rare treat for the homeless. As a result, the children were invited to tour the facility and see the pantry and kitchen in May. This connection created between the homeless, those who serve them and our children has been one of many happy surprises.

Here is another surprise: I had a few children in all classes of all grade levels who had never tasted yellow squash. I harvested some of our squash, chopped it up raw and served it to the children with toothpicks and ranch dressing. A cautionary note: many of these children have tremendous anxiety at the mere mention of tasting a new food. So I offered foods generally once per class and clarified that it was an option, not a requirement, and also offered that if they did not like the taste, they could spit it out in the trash can. Some of those students who were initially reluctant, became much more adventurous when the produce had been grown in their garden. Examples of our food tastings were kale chips and plantain chips. We even compared the taste of home-grown tomatoes and store-bought tomatoes.

One part of the lessons that seemed to be a favorite with the kids involved bringing fresh vegetables from the grocery store that they could handle, feel and smell — not taste. These were some tired veggies after being handled by 240 kids over three days. But it allowed us to talk about why it’s called winter squash, and that artichokes are in the thistle family, and how tomatoes were first thought to be poisonous by the English. By the end of the year, we had covered all of the vegetables available at our local grocery store.

Let your community know what you are doing in your school. Local newspapers are always glad to print articles about what is positive in our schools. Get to know your local reporter covering schools or agriculture. In general, I would take photos with my iPhone and bring them to the newspaper after my monthly lessons. Please check with your teachers to be sure each student has a parental release to have their picture in the paper. Letting the community know what work you are doing also reflects well on your Master Gardener Chapter. We are supported by our yearly dues, but mostly from our fundraisers. People in the community need to know what programs that money supports.

It has been our hope that having our students plant, maintain and harvest the garden would reinforce science lessons, such as the water cycle and soil types. But we found another benefit. The garden was an effective tool to motivate students academically. The fifth-grade students were rewarded for completing all of their work by being allowed to work in the garden with Julia Collins. The staff found that several of the kids who normally would not have completed their work did so for this reward. The garden was an effective tool to reach these kids.

Can we reach children through gardening to help them make sense of their world and empower them to make a difference in their community? Absolutely! I invite you to join me in the adventure.

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