School Garden Teach Kids
By Kathryn Nichols
Garden manager Tanja Roos walks through the greenhouse at Carmel Middle School and plucks a ripe cherry tomato from a bushy plant near the back door. She hands it to a visitor, a vivid taste of summer in a little red globe.
Growing and harvesting vegetables – it’s so simple that even a child can do it. Yet this elementary activity is a springboard to learning about science, the environment, nutrition, and the sweet sensation of working together for a common goal.
New school gardens are blooming in California’s Monterey County with almost every year. Teachers and administrators are finding that the garden can be woven into just about every aspect of the curriculum, even history, cultural studies, foreign languages, and English.
At Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in Salinas, students often do creative writing and poetry projects in the garden. At All Saints Day School in Carmel Valley, kids hold an autumn feast each year to celebrate native American traditions of the harvest, using squash, corn and beans they’ve grown themselves. Not only that, but everyone loves being in the garden.
“After lunch, the kids had the choice of going to recess or working in the garden,” said Kim Derenzo, who up until recently was the garden manager/nutrition coordinator for Martin Luther King Academy. “It wasn’t unusual to have 40 to 60 students come out to work in the garden on any given day. And they really worked.”
“There’s nothing better than having kids out in the garden,” said Roos. “As much as we can get them involved, we do.”
School gardens aren’t a new concept – in fact, as early as 1909, Montessori was espousing gardening as a way to increase youngsters’ appreciation for nature, and to develop desirable traits like patience and responsibility.
But school gardens took on a new significance in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in the Bay Area, when famed Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters urged schools to grow their own produce and use it in cooking projects.
“Berkeley was the Mecca of school gardens,” said Roos, who grew up there and went on to managing Carmel Middle School’s remarkable garden, the Hilton Bialek Biological Sciences Habitat.
School gardens became even more desirable as a practical way to teach science skills, a green laboratory that needed only soil, seeds, sun and water.
As time went on, the schools also had the pressing need to teach children about nutrition, and there’s no better way to get kids to eat their vegetables – they are far more likely to try produce they’ve grown themselves.
Derenzo said she would often sample items with her students straight out of the garden – even raw beets and radishes. “They’d eat it up,” she said.
State and local grants became available for gardens, and groups like the California School Garden Network and the National Farm to School Network are now lending support in the forms of guides, curricula and information.
Enthusiastic parents, community members and staff have also been instrumental. Family members, teachers and college students worked side by side to develop Martin Luther King Academy’s garden a few years ago; “You’d see grandparents, parents, babies out there on work days,” recalls Derenzo.
At Carmel Middle School, turning 10 acres of open space into a garden was the dream of science teacher Craig Hohenberger and then-principal Carl Pallastrini, inspired by the garden and kitchen classroom established by Alice Waters in Berkeley.
Hohenberger started by taking his science classes outside in 2000, and planted an organic garden. Now it’s known as the Hilton Bialek Biological Sciences Habitat, named for a former Carmel School Board trustee who was an instrumental supporter of the garden. The Habitat currently includes a pond and small waterfall, a bee garden planted with native varieties to attract insects, a solar-powered greenhouse, a native plant nursery and an outdoor kitchen, as well as a stunningly beautiful one-acre vegetable garden; plans call for the building of a Green Education Center there in the near future.Every student at Carmel Middle School is involved in the Habitat in one way or another. If they’re not banding birds or helping with watershed restoration, they’re planting seeds in the greenhouse, making pizza in the wood-fired oven, or tossing vegetation on the compost heaps.
In 2006, the Habitat received the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award, California’s top environmental honor, for its exceptional programs.
Not just public or elementary schools are going back to the garden. Preschool programs are offered at the garden run by Salinas Adult School, for instance. Community groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCA spend time at the Bialek Habitat. At All Saints, a private school in Carmel Valley, the garden area has expanded from five to 18 planter boxes and added a chicken coop last year, according to teacher Mandy Winston.
Winston directly teaches science to 24 fifth-graders and also rotates other classes, kindergarten through fourth, through the garden for a variety of programs.
“What always amazes them is being able to harvest something that grew from a seed they planted,” said Winston. “It’s like a light going on: ‘Hey, this is where it comes from!’ And they finally understand what part of the plant they’re eating.”
Fifth-graders at All Saints spend much of the school year learning about plant science concepts like photosynthesis and pollination; third-grade students have an agriculture unit that involves growing lettuce and having a salad party in honor of Monterey County’s most famous crop.
And research is discovering that garden-based learning does, indeed, pay off.
A 2005 study in Temple, Texas, found that third, fourth and fifth-grade students who participated in school gardening activities scored significantly higher on science achievement tests compared to kids who didn’t garden. There’s also evidence that children who get to try fresh vegetables develop better eating habits, and that through taking care of a garden, they learn a lifelong sense of stewardship and responsibility for the land.
“The passion our staff has for the garden is felt by the students,” said Roos. “Passion is addictive – it’s a magnet. It shows them this is an important thing to be doing. And the bigger picture is that this is about the health of our planet.”