By Michelle Rauch
To dig in the dirt and plant the seeds that will grow into beautiful flowers and edible delights is a source of enjoyment and relaxation for me, as it is for many gardeners. There is also a tremendous opportunity to tap into the educational value of gardening. Schools across central Kentucky are taking science, health, and environmental lessons out of the classroom and into the garden. Yates Elementary in Lexington started their school garden eight years ago. It was a beginning. When the school was renovated in 2011, the garden was bulldozed which enabled science lab teacher Josh Radner to start from scratch and expand. “I use it to teach all my life science and ecology. It would be really hard to teach without it. Even if we don’t take the kids out into the garden every day, I will bring stuff in from the garden,” Radner says. From observing leaves and plant life cycles, to catching a praying mantis and learning about insects, it’s putting science into the context of our daily lives.
The garden at Yates is divided into sections. There is a wild ecosystem designed to attract birds, butterflies, and other critters. There is a rain garden, herb garden and, of course, a vegetable garden. “I have had a lot of success getting kids to eat things they would otherwise not eat because they didn’t see how it was grown,” Radner says. The kids are eating the homegrown vegetables by the mouthfuls for snacks. Surprisingly, radishes have been a big hit. So has the lemony, leafy green perennial, sorrel. “The kids just devour it as soon as it grows and eat it right there in the garden,” Radner says. Carrots have been another popular snack. During the summer, the kids have an opportunity to take home the fresh vegetables by the bagfuls. “For the majority of these kids, it’s the only time they will pick something from a garden,” he says.
In addition to learning about the health benefits of homegrown food, the students are learning about recycling back into the earth through composting. They take the food waste from the cafeteria and compost it for the garden. Maintaining the garden takes an investment in time and resources. Radner says it wouldn’t be possible without support from the community. John Michler, owner of Micheler’s Florist and Greenhouses, donated the plants that got the garden started.
Gardens are popping up at more schools. Three years ago Locust Trace opened as part of the Fayette County Public Schools technical school system. The school is surrounded by 82 acres of farmland, complete with a state of the art greenhouse, gardens, orchards, and wildlife habitat. The programs give high school students hands on experience for those who may want to pursue careers in the agriculture areas. While the idea is being cultivated in more schools each year, school gardens are not new. The federal government established the Office of School and Home Gardening within the Bureau of Education in 1914. By 1918, every state had at least one school garden. The U.S. Department of Agriculture helped cultivate the movement by providing seeds and garden plans. The need for local food during World War I prompted an increase in the movement. A motto was born—A garden for every child, a child in every garden; and so was the United States School Garden Army. Students took a pledge for food production and conservation.
Starting a school garden lends itself to customization. The themes are limitless—butterfly or hummingbird garden, sensory garden (think scratch and sniff) medicinal garden, the makings of a salad or pizza garden, fruit garden, or a picture perfect art garden, offering visuals for sketching and painting. Studies have shown that test scores are higher among students who are exposed to garden-based learning. For more information about school gardening, including resources for teachers, visit edibleschoolyard.org