With only an hour or so left in the day’s class, Master Gardener Team Leaders took the stage, one by one by one, in hopes of wooing us into volunteering with their group. Afterwards there would be a luncheon where they could further their sales pitch to each one of our captured souls individually. What I learned most on that day was that there are more gardens spread out around our little mountain town, that do more amazing things for our community, than you might ever imagine.
There are demonstration gardens, community gardens and education-oriented gardens. We have gardens that are wildlife habitats and monarch waystations; gardens that supply produce to Meals-on-Wheels, food pantries, homes for the disabled, children that are food insecure, and to senior centers. Gardens offer a gardening experience for Scouts, Big Brothers and Sisters, and to children from development and mental health centers. We listened as each leader described the benefits of their garden to the community, and, without boasting too much, why their garden was most worthy among them all.
Lunch being prepared in the back of the room, and my growling stomach, became more and more of a distraction as the last Team Leader took center stage. She wore a pink tutu, sang a children’s gardening song and danced a dance. Her strategy worked – we didn’t think of lunch again for the duration.
She was the Team Leader for the garden at an elementary school closest to my house. Students plant the garden in the spring of their first grade year, and when they return to school as second graders later that fall, they harvest from the garden they planted in the spring. She told us of children working in the garden and popping cherry tomatoes into their mouths, or spontaneously crunching down on a pole bean fresh off the vine, sometimes tasting these vegetables for the first time in their life.
School Gardening Days were set for every Friday morning, March 20 thru June 5th. The first class would be an introductory meeting and a garden tour for the kids, but first, we would have a workday on Friday, the 13th of March, for spring cleaning around the garden.
We would never have that workday. We would not have School Gardening Days. Master Gardeners were banned from all school activities on account of the pandemic, and then the schools closed altogether. Everyone went into lockdown.
By this time, the seeds for our garden had been purchased and sent to a greenhouse down the road from my house for germination. In a matter of weeks, there were hundreds of plants ready to plant, and no one to plant them.
A teacher assistant volunteered to plant while our Team Leader and two Master Gardeners spent 334 hours of their personal time maintaining the garden throughout the past year.
The school principal recorded a video tour in the garden and sent it to 100 of the children. Some of the kids participated in a summer program that was held in the garden. They had the opportunity to see, touch, and taste the year’s harvest, including cucamelons, tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce, kohlrabi, and blueberries. Another 60 children received videos in the fall about the insects, spiders and animals in the garden.
Almost exactly one year later, the schools are open, Master Gardeners have been cleared to volunteer again, and we have had our first (socially distanced) workday in the garden. My job was to clear the weeds from the compost bins and prune the butterfly bush. These two (seemingly simple) chores took every minute of two hours to finish, and left me with serious first-gardening-of-the-season sore muscles. It was magnificent.
My gardening mate worked on the Hügelkultur, or Hugel for short – a German word meaning mound or hill culture. The technique involves digging a hole and filling it with logs, branches, plant waste, compost and soil to form a mound; a practice thought to have been used in German and Eastern European societies for hundreds of years, perhaps as a way to avoid burning woody debris, which was illegal as recently as the early 1960s.
Before we left, I took a picture of the children’s supply shed. Those pint-sized gardening gloves, shovels and watering pails are just beyond adorable.
There’s something to be said about how much can be learned by working in another garden alongside other gardeners. It’s not just the fun of seeing new plants, or the camaraderie. Landscapes are different. The personality of the garden is different. Gardeners are different in their experience and expertise. It’s energizing and thoroughly motivating.
We won’t have traditional School Gardening Days again this year on account of the pandemic, but this Master Gardener is tickled pink to be back at school.
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The goal of the Elementary School Gardening Program is to develop an appreciation/respect among the children for nature and her wonders, including the role they play as guardians. Surveys indicate the program also broadens the children’s understanding of science and math concepts, as well as cultural understanding.
Last year our school garden included nine raised beds (five as square foot gardens), an herb wheel, a Hugel, strawberry pyramid, bean tipi, a Three Sisters bed, a certified Monarch Waystation, a Cherokee corn bead bed, three flower gardens, and a two-section compost bin.
The title of this post is a famous quote by Robert Rodale (1930-1990), an exponent of organic farming and the head of publishing empire, Rodale Publishing; focused on health and wellness lifestyle magazines and books.