For thousands of local grade-schoolers, the gardens have brought a direct link between growing and eating food, a simple but profound formative revelation that, for the most part, was denied the parents of these children, and even their parents.
“Everyone is taught to think of food as a burden,” said Jennifer Mampara, the school-garden and nutrition teacher at Watkins Elementary School on Capitol Hill. “The kids here enjoy making food, and they really enjoy eating what they make.”
I have been somewhat skeptical of school vegetable gardens: First, I wondered who would be around to shepherd and harvest the main season crops of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, okra, squash, corn, melons — all the bounty of July and August when the classrooms are empty.
Second, and moreover, who would maintain a veggie garden, which needs periodic major soil work and construction and then continuous attention and toil, with tying, pruning, thinning, weeding, watering and harvesting?
With now more than 80 school gardens in the District, a city law to promote school gardens and a citywide garden coordinator,, the early logistical issues seem to have been addressed.
Aided by a long growing season in our region, the gardeners have learned to align vegetable sowing and harvesting with the academic year. This might be something as simple as growing varieties of shelling beans instead of green beans, to be collected by willing little hands when the pods are shriveled in October.
The second problem has been addressed with the recognition that you cannot build a garden and then rely on the teachers and enthusiastic parents alone to keep it going. You need a person who will organize the maintenance and work with teachers to provide links between classes and garden.
You also need extra money, and for the most successful gardens, that has meant finding a nonprofit to provide grants for building gardens and to fund positions, typically part time, to pull it together.
Watkins was one of the first schools in the District to have a garden, the first in 1994 as a verdant outdoor classroom themed around primeval plants and dinosaurs and expanded to include a wildlife and native plant garden.
Three sides of the building are now wrapped in gardens; on the west side a wetland garden functions as a lesson in Chesapeake Bay ecology.
Volunteer garden coordinator Barbara Percival spends most of her time, however, in the extensive, fenced vegetable garden on the south side of the school, which stretches almost 90 feet along E Street SE. The garden has 23 raised beds, and the fence functions as a long and willing trellis. Awaiting the arrival of the children next week, the garden is designed to hit its stride in September and October. In adjacent beds, the children will harvest an anticipated 100 pounds of sweet potatoes around Thanksgiving from slips they rooted in May.