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Real Work to Grow Real Food that Makes a Real Difference

Posted May 13 2012 7:18am

So, here's what has happened this school year at a community garden and in a back field with that middle school health class, about which I wrote in this post: The Exciting Return of Open Garden--and How a Middle School Got a Garden in Less Than Two Weeks .  I decided to share with you the actual emails that I sent to the principal each week as recaps of the class.  This class was not lesson-planned.  The work the kids did was not master-planned as part of the community garden.  It cost a total of $300 (everything else has been donated, such as a garden bed by a city councilor).  Draw your own conclusions, and if there is anything in here that can help you in your own school garden efforts, please feel free to use it.

(November 10, 2011)
1. The students were presented with a list of goals and were in charge of determining ways to achieve them. 1. They crushed leaves as a carbon source and mixed them with compost in beds being prepared to grow food for the food pantry. 2. They watered the raised bed they are tending (which they filled and planted last week), and then hooped and row-covered it for continual winter growing. 3. They learned the difference between a garlic head and clove, and how to plant garlic (which they then did). 4. They checked the pumpkin compost mixture they made last week to evaluate appropriate carbon:nitrogen ratio and adjust if needed. 5. They harvested buckwheat seeds to save for soil-building cover cropping for next summer. 6. They transplanted an Asian green named tatsoi (which tastes a bit like spinach) from a demonstration commercial greens grow bed into a food pantry bed. 7. They learned to identify cilantro, lavender, three types of lettuce, two types of cabbage, and two types of kale 8. They did real work to grow real food. 9. They were necessary.
(November 17, 2011) The kids finished filling all the empty food pantry beds with leaves and compost, plus they transplanted into two other food pantry beds, added lettuce seeds to their bed, checked the pumpkin compost and adjusted the carbon, and watered the new plantings.  They all left with a sprig of mint, which helps increase alertness (hope that helped back in the classroom!).
The students were amazed that the garlic they planted just last week was sprouting, and I was amazed that a wheelbarrow with no wheel presented the kids with an opportunity to create their own solution--two and four of them at a time carried it instead, over and over again.
(December 6, 2011) Quick initial comment: The student photographer does such an excellent job of getting photos that don't show the kids' faces!  She really has a future as a journalist!  (Is she a good writer? Is there a school newspaper?  Just a thought . . . )
Anyway, thank you so much for coming today.  We harvested 44 pounds (which the kids weighed, and added), for a donated value of $220 (as the kids computed correctly, based on $5 per pound).  They also harvested from the Team Peachtree bed, which didn't exist five weeks ago.  As you can see in the photo of the red bucket in the walk-in cooler at the food pantry (where we brought it after the harvest), the garden produce will be the only green, fresh food that the food pantry clients receive tomorrow.
After working with these children the last five weeks, I am confident that a garden at Peachtree would be a success as the children are capable of doing real work to grow real food that makes a real, measurable difference.   Come dig with us whenever you can get away from the office and you will probably start loving it out there, too!  Here is a photo of the school garden at Coan Middle School in the City of Atlanta.  As you and I discussed briefly, it is an "urban farm" model, which means basically that it has long rows instead of individual plots, and which is the model you see more often with middle schools.  I think this is a better fit for the energy level, work ethic, strength, and enthusiasm of the kids I've seen so far. 
The reality is that kids don't wait.  They grow up My 16-year-old has never once had her hands in a school garden.  I am grateful my 11-year-old now does.  Everyone at our garden has enjoyed working with the children and we thank you both for enabling this to happen.  I will be sad to see this group rotate out but excited to meet the next group, who will have a chance to continue the work already started.
(December 8, 2011--the kids came twice that week) Today, my fellow garden-member Nicole led the kids in adding organic fertilizer to the many beds they had filled with compost, manure, and leaves over the last few weeks.  They learned how it includes cottonseed, kelp meal, rock phosphate and dolomite lime (and was created by a fellow garden member, Shawn).  Then, they got to transplant into the new beds that are now completely prepared for growing for the food pantry.  
A number of children had been curious about the birdhouse gourds growing in one of the member's beds, so I brought ones I had at home that I had painted.  Several boys of Mexican descent shared some nice stories with me about their grandfathers and how they use gourds like this cut in half by a machete for drinking water and for other purposes.   
Finally, every student got to visit with my friend Farmer Sue of The Art Barn at Morning Glory Farm (see here: ).  She brought a heritage-breed lamb who trotted behind her like a dog, and a chicken named Vera Bradley who had been featured on the cover of a magazine with her.  This chicken, which looks like it is wearing pajamas, is the type of chicken brought over on the Mayflower.  The kids got to hold and pet the animals, and asked many questions of Farmer Sue about them.   
I especially enjoyed talking with the children about some of their favorite experiences here in the last five weeks.  Many liked crushing the leaves in the beds, and a large number claimed that harvesting for the food pantry was their favorite activity of all.  

(March 15, 2012) It was so great to see a new health class running through the gates to the community garden this morning. This group will be the first people in the City of Dunwoody to grow food on the back field, and they will actually create their grow space, which is two 40' rows, enabled by funding from the Peachtree Charter Middle School Foundation. They will be conducting three different growing experiments: comparing no till, hugelkultur, and double dig, as well as figuring out irrigation solutions and deer-resistant vegetable choices.  This is real research that is needed by the community about real challenges in our climate and growing conditions, and the answers to these questions are not yet known.
The kids and Coach Burdette were awesome.  The kids clearly knew about the last class that came out for numerous weeks during the fall semester, and they were excited to be there (and worked hard).  They should be finished creating the 80' grow space next week, and then can decide as a group what to plant.
Here is a video that shows them running through the gate onto the field. (See video here .)
(March 22, 2012) Thank you again for allowing these children to join other Dunwoody schoolchildren who have the opportunity to be part of a garden.  There is not one lesson that can't be learned in a garden, but I think the most important of all is, for each and every child, that "I am necessary, and I am capable of doing real work that matters."   The kids spread compost, added organic fertilizer (and discovered they can carry 25 pound bags), planted 3 types of potatoes (including Purple Peruvians) and 2 types of onions, turned over cover crops and learned how that helps the soil, and saw once again that they are necessary.  They are doing real work to grow real food that makes a real difference.  
Here is my friend Bob's post about the middle school kids, titled Enter The Young , and here is an article that ran on the local Patch .
(March 29, 2012) The kids have finished creating both their rows and are now growing in both of them. 
* They remembered to "bend at their knees" when lifting something heavy.
* They asked lots of questions about manure and how that is good as they spread more cow and chicken manure (one boy said the cow manure was his favorite part of the last three weeks as it surprised him so much how nice it smelled).
* They learned how to plant tomatoes (laying down so they could develop a strong root system and foundation to support them as they grow), peppers, and more onions;
* They worked as a team to water by hand with watering cans.
* They continued working on the signs.
* They "turned under" two beds of cover crops in the main garden, as they did last week, and remembered how that benefits an organic garden.
* They saw that it's better to not complain--just get the job done--even when chicken fertilizer stinks.
* And the most exciting part of all, they applied "real world math" to figure out the square footage of the two rows and the compost circle (in which they will be growing as well) to determine this necessary information: They are cultivating 553 square feet (the two long rows, plus a big circle), which has the potential to produce 1,106 pounds of food per year, for a food value of $5,530.  And, yes, there were students who were able to show the others how Area= Pi x R squared.   The group that computed these numbers then presented the findings to the others.
When I asked at the end for students to raise their hands if they were necessary today at the garden, every hand went up.
(April 12, 2012) Today the students:
1. Figured out how to equitably distribute 6 wheelbarrows of wood chips around a 4' x 8' bed .  A student presented the conclusion (1 load on each of the 4' sides, and 2 loads on each of the 8' sides).
2.  Designed, engineered, and built tomato cages out of locally-harvested bamboo.  Used loppers, a saw, and twine, and worked in self-determined teams (all girls today).  Figured it all out on their own.
3. Toured Don Converse's rain garden (thanks, Don, for leading this!) and continued their concept development about rain harvesting solutions.
4.  Planted and watered at least 10 more crop seeds and herb plants (thanks, Ann, for helping!) to see what the deer will leave alone (they apparently like onions as they ate them all, which was a big surprise--the tomato and potato plants seem to be surviving, however).
I'll get more bamboo for more building next week, and I hope we are able to do a couple of actual pilot projects in the next couple of weeks re: the rain harvesting solutions as well.  And let's hope the whole row doesn't become just one big deer salad bar!  We left room on the "Deer Like: " sign for many more entries just in case.
(April 19, 2012) Great projects in the "back field" today. The students worked more on their structures (tomato cages and cucumber/bean teepees), they created a simple rain harvesting system, they added fish emulsion to their plants and seedlings growing from last week's planting (which the deer didn't eat--hurray!), they tossed the compost made from smashed pumpkins from the group in the fall, and they learned three new words:
1. Olfactory (the sense of smell, which is considered the most powerful sense--they smelled the gross fish but also peppermint, lemon balm, spearmint and lavender);
2. Soporific (sleepy effect--they smelled lavender and were reminded how Beatrix Potter included this word in her story about Peter Rabbit, and found out that sometimes lavender farmers fall asleep in the fields, and that lavender is used in bath products for babies because of its soporific effect);
3. Prolific (bountiful--they saw how I'm growing sweet potato plants from a sweet potato in water and how prolific it is).
They learned that I have no answer for "What do I do next?"  That's for them to figure out. 
My favorite moment of the day was when one boy smelled  the herbs and asked me, "How do you get them to smell like that?"
All of them raised their hand when asked if they were necessary today. 
(May 3, 2012) I think today was the best yet, and I'll tell you why.  So far, I've seen particularly excellent collaboration skills from the kids, but I was not fully satisfied that the traits of self-motivation, innovation, and curiosity were sufficiently developed in these students and I believe these are traits needed for a changing world.  Yet today:
* A girl told me she was going to remove some very stubborn weeds and proceeded to walk all the way back to the community garden to get a shovel to do it, and then did it.  This was not on the Goals list.  No one told her to do it.  She just saw it needed doing and did it.
* A boy who has been doing a lot of talking about the "lack of water"  issue for weeks now, yet had been a little lacking in actually doing anything about it, brought an oversized umbrella with him from home and went to work on fixing the broken umbrella rain barrel immediately.  He rigged it with string in a way that hadn't been done before, or suggested by anyone.  I think it's going to work!
* A group of girls were bursting with pride after working with Coach Burdette to improve the tomato cages they have been working on for 3 weeks now, including the total rebuilding of one of them.  One girl told me they just weren't good enough before and they wanted to make them better.  She was smiling from ear to ear.
In other exciting news, a boy befriended a cricket (which gave me an opportunity to mention the Newbery Honor Award-winning book, A Cricket in Times Square, which many of the kids knew), all of the kids seemed very interested when I showed them the worm bin (although only one student in the class had ever been in a classroom that had one) and they made and used a liquid worm castings tea to water, the herbs were a big hit again (including learning how to say "rosemary" in Spanish--romero), and they were introduced to the idea of "companion plants" by planting marigolds by the tomatoes because they emit a chemical that keeps bugs away.  
I'd like to extend a big, special thanks to Ann (as the kids did today), whose diligent watering day after day has been critical during these days of no-rain for helping the kids' seeds to germinate and transplants to thrive. So that I don't end on a sad note, once again every single student can tell you exactly what they did to be necessary.  I also want to say that I saw Ron Clark, Disney Teacher of the Year, best-selling author, subject of the TV Movie of the Year based on his story, and head of the world-renowned non-profit school The Ron Clark Academy , speak last night (he did the entire presentation while standing and dancing on a desk) and it reinforced for me what a great thing Coach Burdette is doing with this fun, hands-on, multi-sensory, kinesthetic learning for his health class.  Thank you for involving me in this very special pilot project.
(May 10, 2012) BIG, huge thanks to Farmer Sue of the Art Barn at Morning Glory Farm (yet again--she did this for the class in the fall as well) for donating her professional time to share her chickens, goat, knowledge, and enthusiasm with the students ( ).  Thank you also to our other guests today: Alan Mothner, the executive director of the Dunwoody Nature Center, and Angela Minyard, one of the founders and a board member of the Dunwoody Community Garden.  Big thanks, as always, to Ann Dovanquy for her volunteer help with the students, and bravo to Coach Burdette and the kids.  Their little urban farm is growing beautifully.
Next week is the last week of this year-long pilot project and the "Goals" chalk board will be blank when the kids come running down the hill.  The students will decide what they need to do to finish what they have created.  FYI, the public will be invited to "give and take" there this summer--give a few minutes to water or tend, and take what's ready for harvest.  I'll try to donate whatever is available on Wednesdays to the food pantry.  It is my hope the students and their families will come by when they can to see the fruits of their labor.
At least six students came up to me personally and told me that they were starting or have started home gardens, and at least one student's family now has a plot at the community garden.  I'd like to think we all helped to plant a seed this year in our children--a seed of knowledge, curiosity, and belief that they are necessary.  Let's see what grows.
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