Growing garden programs in Utah schools
“Gardening is an incredibly powerful experience, especially for kids,” says Liz Pedersen, Wasatch Community Garden’s school garden coordinator. As administrator of WCG programs at schools throughout the Salt Lake Valley, Pedersen has seen first-hand how integrating gardening and education, especially in the K-6 setting, has both immediate and long-lasting results. “Getting kids in the garden and having them grow, harvest and eat the fruits and vegetables they’ve taken care of is really empowering,” she says. “It makes a big difference in many areas—from understanding where food comes from to encouraging students to try eating more and different kinds of veggies. It’s a win-win.”
Students, teachers, parents and community volunteers have come together to establish and nurture school and community garden sites integrated into science, math and arts curriculum for every age and ability. Many public, private and charter schools have constructed school gardens ranging in size from a few classroom window boxes in preschool playrooms to full-scale greenhouses, dedicated indoor grow rooms and year-round farming at K-12 schools. No matter the level of effort or involvement, each school environment has its own challenges and triumphs. Just like digging in the home garden, there’s always something new to learn in every season.
“By using school gardens as an educational tool,” Pedersen says, “the School Garden Program is dedicated to encouraging kids to get outdoors, get their hands in the dirt and broaden their food choices” when they cultivate and eat garden bounty. Overwhelmingly, national and international studies have shown that garden-to-plate education also makes for healthier kids who over time will independently make nourishing food choices and develop a more adventurous palate than students who are not exposed to planting, harvesting and eating the food they’ve grown.
According to Pedersen, “Some teachers start planting boxes in classrooms over the winter to have seedlings ready for the garden, but most of our garden curriculum focuses on having students plant seeds directly in the ground” in early spring. Through grants, local business support and parent volunteers, WCG has developed a three-tier grant-distribution and staff-support program, she says. “Anyone who applies can get help from WCG. For some schools with a lot of PTA involvement, their needs are mostly on the supply and training side, but are pretty self-sufficient otherwise with community volunteers,” who oversee planting, maintenance and harvesting along with faculty interaction to incorporate school gardens into math and science curriculum. For example, when Bonneville Elementary’s school garden was established in 2012, WCG provided an irrigation expert to install a drip watering system in cooperation with school district maintenance supervisors and trained parent volunteers to maintain the system.
Once established, WCG annually provides seeds, transplants and educational resources, including a monthly school garden e-newsletter, Seedlings, with planting tips and kid-friendly recipes straight from the garden.
Pedersen’s work at a handful of Salt Lake City Title I schools is more involved. “We have lots of discussions with teachers,” she says. “The education component of the garden curriculum is really driven by their needs. They know what they’re doing; it’s my job as garden coordinator to make sure they have a healthy, safe, fun and interactive garden space to teach” at Escalante, Mountain View and Lincoln Elementary and other participating schools.
Under current Salt Lake City School District guidelines, public school gardens have very specific soil preparation and maintenance requirements to ensure student and teacher safety (such as using traceable commercial compost, no exposure to petroleum and other contaminants, etc.) and basic food-safety procedures for washing and minimally processing garden produce. The WCG garden K-6 curriculum also integrates in-garden tasting menus with science and math education. But the SLC district school garden harvests have some limitations. Pedersen says that “current rules do not allow us to take food from the garden to the cafeteria,” or to do any cooking. “We can consume foods from the garden raw in either the garden or the classroom,” after thorough washing. Pedersen doesn’t see this as much of a drawback to either the program or the students’ enthusiasm: “We have a series of four workshops and lots of resources to get schools to grow and eat food produced right in their gardens.”
Dancing Moose Montessori School’s Master Gardener Nichole Mathews agrees. “Spring is an exciting time of year to be in the garden,” she says. “A lot of planning goes in to getting the spring planting jump-started” at the 2012 Best of State Award-winning school garden, which serves their pre-K through second-grade community. As a private school, Dancing Moose Montessori’s garden program adheres to health and safety requirements, but their garden and school nutrition programs can be more flexibly incorporated. “We have a school chef on site who prepares all of the meals from scratch, with no pre-processed foods,” school chairman Michael Sibbett says. “Nichole plans ahead with Chef Pepe to figure out what he needs in the school kitchen.” Mathews designs each year’s garden season with that menu consultation in mind.
In addition to grape vines, berry bushes, a giant teepee covered in bean vines and 50 row boxes for planting, the school garden features a variety of fruit trees. “We intentionally planted varieties that stay low to the ground so that young children can harvest the fruit without getting on ladders,” Sibbett says. “There’s one apple tree—probably the most expensive one we have—that’s been grafted to produce five different types of apples on the same tree. The kids are absolutely fascinated by the science going into that tree.”
Considering in advance the available support and coordination of a school garden during the summer months is crucial, Pedersen says. “Schools with a robust volunteer network can maintain summer gardens when school isn’t in session, but that’s not the case for all school gardens,” while WCG summer programs focus on kids camps and youth outreach programs June-August. Skaggs Catholic Center Master Gardener Monica Bathurst has extensive experience with this challenge, overseeing the school’s bountiful crop yields at the campus serving K-12 students at St. John the Baptist elementary and middle schools and Juan Diego High School. “We have an awesome crew of volunteers who tend, weed and harvest in the garden when school is out for the summer,” she says. “It takes a lot of work, but people come and volunteer for a day in the garden and then they’re hooked. It’s very rewarding.”
Like Dancing Moose Montessori, the Skaggs community garden falls under private jurisdiction for food production, processing and integration with the cafeteria program. Fresh corn on the cob, tomatoes, soybeans, sweet peppers and greens of all varieties sourced from the school garden are frequently (and popular) on the cafeteria menu. Come summer, those bumper crops are divvied up among volunteer families and are donated to the Feeding the Hungry Catholic Charities program. Bathurst says that summer volunteers—many of whom are students—also take the entrepreneurial initiative to fundraise for the garden in a pinch. “Last August after we had a huge hail storm that absolutely pummeled our tomatoes followed by crazy heat, garden volunteers brought loads of the bruised and cracked—but still delicious!—produce for sale after Sunday Mass, like a mini farmer’s market,” she says. Showing that they take their gardening seriously but not themselves, photos of Pope Francis accompanied the produce for sale with printed phrases like “Don’t judge,” and “Our tomatoes crack us up!” “We sell out after every Mass,” Bathurst continues, “and it all goes back to the garden or to Feeding the Hungry” charity.
“Kohlrabi. Seriously, who knew it’d be a huge hit?” Bathurst says about the surprise enthusiasm for both growing and eating from the garden. From colorful twisty carrots to exotic greens, she says that while there have been some hits and misses, most of the school garden’s selections have paid off. She credits Draper City administrators for giving the Skaggs community garden a big boost in 2011, with the city’s proposal to finance the school’s extensive greenhouse and equipment expansion in return for the garden selling produce at the Draper Days Market for five years.
As part of the Utah fourth grade science curriculum, students study plant propagation and cellular biology, and St. John the Baptist teachers and students have met that challenge with vigor. “The students do research on all the produce they’ll be selling at the spring plant sale, market and the Fall Fest. They need to know what the plants are, how they were grown and how to cook them,” Bathurst says.
The fall harvest is also a crucial fundraising endeavor at Dancing Moose Montessori School, where their Scarecrow Festival draws more than 600 attendees to support the school’s gardening initiatives. Going on seven years, the festival includes live and silent auction items, with a highlight being the school-grown pumpkins and squash.
The school garden—which is adjacent to a municipal golf course—is also brimming with opportunities to teach students about fauna, in addition to flora. “We know that birds and insects will eat some of the plants,” Mathews says. “And there’s a fox that lives on the fringes of the course.” Insect education can be more of a challenge: Kids love butterflies but are more wary about potentially stinging bees and wasps. Sibbett says that gardening also teaches patience, and Montessori philosophy underscores the notion that “everything has a time and place.” “Sometimes we need to be patient and wait to harvest the apples when they’re ripe, as tempting as it may be to pick them early,” he says.
Liz Pedersen of WCG grins with the irony of the school calendar not meshing particularly well with the garden cycle. “When school starts, we’re looking either at what was planted already over the summer, or what we can grow as fall crops,” like greens, carrots, herbs or fast-growing peas. And those fall harvests are a great introduction to gardening at any level. When I volunteered in the early years of the Bonneville Elementary program, we used garden surplus for the annual Teacher Appreciation dinner during SEP week, from tomatillo salsa to pasta sauce and squash stew. Full disclosure: From the perspective of this garden volunteer, it’s an even greater incentive that Skaggs Master Gardener Bathurst uses garden tomatoes, herbs and peppers to make killer bloody marys for the private school’s volunteer appreciation party each fall.
Jill Bell, a full-time gardening teacher at Wasatch Waldorf Charter School, believes that gardening is a year-round endeavor, especially when integrated into the arts and sciences. She says the music teachers “have requested that we grow particular herbs in the garden,” with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme echoing the lyrics of the Simon & Garfunkel tune ‘Scarborough Fair’ during music lessons.
The garden program includes both lyrical ingredients and the instrumental platform; “We’re planning to grow gourds for use as musical instruments this season,” Bell says. Sounds like an opportunity to shake things up in the classroom and beyond.
With the exception of some indoor plants in classrooms, most school garden programs go into hibernation until the snow melts. This is definitely not the case at the Skaggs Catholic Center garden, where a dedicated plant grow room complete with water supply and lighting was planned during school construction. On a blustery February afternoon, Master Gardener Bathurst greeted me with a huge smile and cheerful dirt-smudged wave of her hand at the school’s grow room. Expansive south-facing windows show that it’s dumping snow outside, but in the high-ceilinged classroom is verdant and bright, smelling of fresh soil and the slightly citrusy scent of the basil Bathurst has been moving from table-sized grow trays to small individual pots. Bathurst says most of these plants are destined for the annual school plant sale fundraiser, which is held in Draper around Mother’s Day weekend.
With more than 5,000 plants available for sale, the spring fundraiser and harvest Fall Festival almost entirely support the school garden program, which utilizes the grow room, cold frames, a 50-by-200-foot greenhouse and extensive garden beds on the school campus. “Everyone’s life here is affected by the garden,” says Bathurst, who as full-time paid staff oversees the garden operations year round with Sister Celine Dounies of the Holy Cross Order.
Dancing Moose Montessori Chairman Michael Sibbett concurs that gardening is crucial to whole childhood education. “Start ’em young, so they appreciate where their food comes from and it will become a lifestyle,” he says. And he has a lot of community testimony to back up this claim. “Every year we invest in more features for the garden experience for our students,” he continues. “I knew it was all worth it when I had a dad in tears telling me he could not get his children to eat vegetables until they started planting by seed, watching it grow, and then harvesting the vegetables for our chef to prepare and serve. He ended by saying he can’t keep enough broccoli in his home for the kids to eat.”
For more information about school gardening curricula, joining a community garden or volunteering, visit wasatchgardens.org