In the late 1990's in Berkeley, California, Alice Waters told a newspaper reporter that every day she drove past a grade school that looked like "no one cared about it." The school principal called Waters (chef and owner of the established and popular Chez Panisse restaurant) out about her comment and asked for suggestions to help his admittedly blighted school. This exchange started a revolution-in a good way-that, 15 years later, has evolved into the organization and idea of the Edible Schoolyard (www.edibleschoolyard.org.)
Even in an area that is primarily rural, there are multiple opportunities for utilizing classroom or school gardening as a vehicle for learning in every discipline: science, math, language arts, visual arts, culinary arts, nutrition, health, recycling. Students interviewed for this article said that their gardening work helped prepare them for some life experiences beyond school and gave them a feeling of contributing to something beneficial. Experts say that gardens provide exercises in teamwork and a connection to nature.
What are some of the other benefits of school gardens? When it comes to standardized science tests, students participating in garden projects are achieving higher scores. Hands-on activities linking to curriculum in botany, biology, energy cycles, food chains, weather, water, soil composition and insects reinforce lessons and allow children to collect and evaluate their own data in relevant ways.
The Barnesville High School greenhouse grows plants that go into baskets and are sold to a public annual Mother’s Day sale.
Math students calculate the number of plants needed to fill a container, a row or an acre. Measurements of plant heights and fruit or produce weights and yields can provide the bases for custom math scenarios. Social sciences can cover native plants and how local crops play a part in the area's history and economy, for example the "three sisters" plantings of the Native Americans.
Schools are implementing new nutritional standards, moving toward more portions of fruits and vegetables. However, children aren't known for their adventurous eating habits outside of mixing four different cereals together. Tasting the sweetness of a fresh, red pepper off the plant that they tended from a seedling could encourage students to try other vegetables, ask for them at home or even grow their own plants at home.
This is the hope of Mary Mower and Carol Lepic, both Master Gardeners from St. Clairsville, who have developed children's gardening workshops offered to schools and other children's groups through the Belmont County OSU Cooperative Extension Service. Last summer at three Community Action Commission community centers, they brought in baskets of home grown vegetables for the children to see and touch. "Some kids have never seen a regular carrot with tiny roots and the greenery at the top," says Mower. "They only know carrots as the small, peeled down baby carrots in plastic bags."
Mower and Lepic showed them beans from a seed packet, sprouts growing and bean plants from which the children picked beans for themselves. With Ohio Valley obesity rates steady around 30 percent, Mower and Lepic say sometimes getting kids and adults to try new things is like "swimming upstream" against fast food commercials and routine choices. They were happy to find out that some of the families last summer had containers with tomatoes or herbs already growing at home.
Barnesville High School students Theresa Gallagher, Sam Jefferis and Whitney Lucas like working in the school's greenhouse because it's "challenging" and "doesn't feel like learning." Plants grown in the greenhouse, which was built with a Career Technology grant in 2006 through 2008, are sold in the annual Mother's Day Sale, held the Saturday of Mother's Day weekend. Stephanie Plumly, Barnesville teacher and FFA advisor, says that the 65 students in the agriculture classes at BHS all participate in the program. Though the greenhouse is new, Barnesville has been offering agriculture classes since the 1920's to accommodate the rural community.
Gallagher adds that the greenhouse and sale also teaches the students business acumen and entrepreneurship. They have to work within a budget and generate enough revenue to operate next year's program. As it happens, nearly two-thirds of this year's crop was lost to a freeze last month. Plumly says they definitely won't be able to recoup by the sale, but it's also given the students a taste of what can happen in real life farming, always dependent on the weather.
Down the road from BHS, at Olney Friends School, gardening is done on a much larger scale, in fact, full-scale organic farming. Farm Manager Don Guindon and Assistant Farmer Sandy Sterrett manage programs that are integrated into Olney's curriculum and provide as much of the boarding school's food as possible. Guindon runs the livestock program that raises Olney's beef, pork and goats for consumption throughout the year. Sterrett coordinates the gardens. The school has also raised free range laying hens that produced over 9,000 eggs last school year.
"We're fortunate in that the school is actually on a farm," notes Sterrett. "Most schools don't have the space to produce their daily food." She has a chart of Olney's nine-acre rotation system where they grow wheat, potatoes, carrots, beans, sweet and field corn, cabbage, peas, squash and pumpkins among other vegetables. Smaller gardens produce tomatoes, onions and lettuce. Six to 12 students, called the "Farm Team," do the weeding, plowing and preparation of the vegetables for the kitchen. It's offered as a physical education elective, but Skerrett adds that all Olney students interact with the farm in their regular classes-history, practical skills, chemistry, Spanish.
"It's important for them to understand how to be sustainable," she says. "The curriculum emphasizes certain principles. We use the farm and gardens to support them." The school is actually moving back toward sustainability. When Olney began 175 years ago as a school for Quaker farmers' children, it was completely sustainable. Government regulations and laws forced the school to purchase commercial market foods. However, the school began making adjustments in accordance with those regulations and is increasing its "home grown" percentages. The dilemma now is canning and preserving vegetables and fruits for the winter. "The processing facility required by the government would cost us around $500,000 to build. That's a lot of money for something your grandmother did in her kitchen."
Last year's harvest yielded 1,627 pounds of bush beans; 2,480 pounds of vine crops; 282 pounds of greens; 105 pounds of tomatoes; 150 pounds of sweet corn; 45 pounds of carrots; and 7,000 pounds of potatoes. Thanks to a warmer winter and spring, the school has already been harvesting and eating early lettuce in the past month.
Skerrett says the bigger concept is what they want students to take with them, more than farming skills. "It's the Quaker philosophy to hold the earth dear. That means stewardship, the conservation of all types of resources and wise use of the resources, even the historic buildings. We're fortunate to be here."
School garden experts also say programs instill knowledge about the environment and how what people do has an effect on it. Teaching children about local foods, pesticides, recycling and composting and having them tend their own plants gives them an idea of how responsible care will result in nourishment. As adults, responsible care may translate into promoting conservation.
A school or classroom garden needn't be expansive or expensive. Online suggestions for containers include recycled plastic pots or trays, water troughs or wooden containers. Because of chemical restrictions, however, avoid the use of treated lumber or railroad ties. Fund-raising suggestions included selling seeds from the plants, herbs from an herb garden or hosting a garden dinner night. Plants like lettuce, corn salad and pansies are hardy and quick to grow. Students could plant pumpkins and potatoes in the spring for a fall harvest or plant fall bulbs to bloom in spring.
An excellent resource, Granny's Garden School (www.grannysgardenschool.com) is now a non-profit developed for and located on the 24 acre campus of the Loveland Primary and Elementary Schools in southwestern Ohio. The organization boasts 100 vegetable gardens, flower gardens, a nature trail and apple orchard used to illustrate, demonstrate and teach children and adults how gardening can be incorporated into schools working with Ohio standards and curricula.
Locally Mower and Lepic are beginning a new program in May free to Belmont County schools. For third graders, the pilot program will look at the purposes of gardens and how families can grow their own "pizza garden" or have a "root garden party." Lepic says, "The idea is to get children to be adventurous, get them excited about real food." For information on this program contact Mary Mower at (740) 695-3668.
Thinking of a little girl last summer who was entranced by the fuzzy pod of a green bean, Lepic adds, "You never know what will stay with them. Ten years from now this could have an impact."