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The Exciting Return of Open Garden (and How a Middle School Got a School Garden in Less Than Two Weeks)

Posted Nov 06 2011 7:00am
And so it was that I was just minding my business, tending what I already have going on, when a physical education coach at the middle school directly across a side street from the community garden contacted me.  He teaches a 9-week health class.  Instead of running laps on this track one class day each week, he wanted the kids to do real work that matters to grow real food.  He wanted to start a community garden at his school, but was told "someone is already working on it," (which would be a high school student-led initiative that aims to leverage the school garden movement already underway in my city into one umbrella collective) yet no work has started on the grounds and the reality of that plan happening this year is slim.  (By the way, here is my school garden site-survey post from December 9, 2009, Sunny, Flat and Possible , which includes my video about the prime location at this middle school for a garden).  He wondered if the class could come to the community garden (across the street and a short walk from the easy-to step-over gate by the track pictured in this photo) instead.  His class would only have 55 minutes to get there, to work, and to get back in time.  Would this be possible?

I recognized this man immediately as a passion person.  I felt it when he emailed and then spoke with me on the phone.  And I will tell you right now, wherever you are on our FoodShed Planet, that when you are faced with a passion person, "no" is not an answer.  I know this because I am one.

Click here to see 2-minute video
The challenge in this situation?  A bolted gate at the park (the main entrance is too long a walk in another direction).  See my short video here about it.  The parks director of our city originally told me that one day there would be a new gate, but for now that one could not be opened easily.  The answer was no.  I told him that if we could not find a way for the children to have safe, pedestrian access to the park at this entry point, then this relationship with the school simply would not happen. I started thinking about Plan B, because I knew I could not go back to the coach and tell him no. 
The parks director, Brent Walker, agreed to meet with me.  We walked the fence line.  We crossed a weedy field and climbed a precipice.  We evaluated the route the kids would be taking from the school property, right by the track, right beyond the trees.  We hopped the fence on the way back.  And I don't know if the sight of a 48-year old mom hopping a fence is what did it; or the realization that it was simply ridiculous to let this little, obviously surmountable barrier stand in the way of a terrific, new relationship that would immediately benefit 30 children and enable this middle school to instantaneously say it has a school garden; or the fact that Brent is a passion person, too, who realized, "This, I can do."  But Brent looked at me and said, "Yes." 
And he did.  
And Coach Burdette and his class came.
And I stood there, under the trees beside the garden, welcomed them, and said, "You are the very first school class to come to this community garden, and as of right now, this moment, the middle school officially has a school garden."

They filled the bed that a local city council candidate sponsored for them and that my friend, Bob, built for them, to grow food for the food pantry (on which, school statistics would suggest, at least 30% of them may rely).  They raked leaves to use as a carbon source to mix with the pumpkins (leftover from a church fundraiser) they each got to smash to make compost, in which my friend Don led them.  They planted.  They watered.  They worked.  They learned.  And they are coming back again this week.  And next week.  And every single week of school after that, passing the baton to the next 9-week class and then the next. 
I heard kids says things like, "This is fun," "When do we get to do this again?" and "Can we come and work whenever we want?" One girl came up to me and said proudly, "When I lived in Florida, I got up every day at 4:30 and worked in my grandmother's field.  She payed me."  And then she added, softly, almost in a whisper, "I still get up at 4:30 every day, you know."  I looked at her and said, "So do I" and we both smiled at each other, no other words necessary.
* We wondered if they would be able to handle wheelbarrows full of the heavy compost.  They are.  
* We questioned if they would be able to stay "on task."  They are.  
* We questioned whether real work with real learning would be possible with so many kids and so little time.  It is.  
And for those of you who might be involved with elementary school gardens, I have to tell you.  This was my first time working with a middle school class in a garden, and the middle school may be the sweet spot for school gardens--the kids don't need or want much adult hand-holding, they love to work in teams, and they are capable of doing far more than you may realize.  I told them "I'm going to tell you the goals each week--you figure out how you want to get them achieved.  There are no wrong answers."
A number of people who have read my book comment about Open Garden, which is featured in it. The line I most often hear is, "You must really miss Open Garden," because, yes, I wrote about it with passion.  Open Garden was the name I gave to the event I hosted once a week for months one year where I would swing open my garden gate and invite the children of the neighborhood in to do hands-on gardening projects.  It was a remarkable experience, but its time had passed and it had not yet been replaced in my life.

When those kids and that coach (whom I had not even met in person before that day) came ambling down that path, I felt my throat choke up a bit as I realized--it was the return of Open Garden. And when the coach called me afterwards, his voice gushing with excitement, he told me that his other classes were mad that they were not involved, and I told him that maybe, just maybe, the time may finally be right for the school garden right on their campus to take root. I mean, look at it this way--every single class that coach gets in his class after this school year will have had the experience of an elementary school garden.  They will expect it once they get to the middle school.
When I was initially trying to figure out how to make this work, someone said to me, "Maybe next year the new gate will be in and this will be possible," and I replied, "These kids don't have a year to wait to improve their health and knowledge.  They have now."  And now they have a school garden.
What can you help make happen now, today, where you live?  Don't take no for an answer.  If you get push-back, find another solution.  There is always another solution.  And you may be surprised to find you are surrounded by more passion people than you realize.
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