The school garden: Digging up a fallow field of study in D.C.

January 13, 2011

Building new garden beds last spring, I thought I'd use loads of lovely organic loam from a communal compost pile. It was dark, earthy, free - and topped with a forest of weeds.

I asked a fellow gardener if this black gold might be stuffed with invisible weed seeds waiting for a gardener to give them light and water. "Oh yes," he said. "Took me two years to get on top of them."

So I brought in bulk compost from a trusted source and dodged a bullet. Just.

I was thinking about how a little misstep can create so much work when I was reading about the obstacles school garden advocates, particularly vegetable garden proponents, are facing in Montgomery County, where school administrators have heartily discouraged a movement whose most prominent advocate is Michelle Obama.

One of the grave worries is that children who eat garden produce may exhibit an allergic reaction, and there's liability to consider. They may have a point: Who knows what fresh, organic and nutritious garden vegetables might do to the modern child's delicate constitution, not to mention emotional well-being?

Another concern is "pests," which seems to mean the least desirable rodent species. I think I'd rather have the odd rat than a mess of harlequin bugs or cutworms. Moreover, gardeners don't forgo the benefits of growing food because of pests, though a bull elephant might be a challenge.

The administrators are also troubled by the idea that gardens, once established, won't be maintained, especially during the summer growing season. Now that is a valid reason. Installing a vegetable garden is considerable work. Maintaining it is like paradise, eternal.

There is nothing more satisfying than a weedless garden of vigorous, healthy plants and nothing sadder than one whose veggies are being overtaken by henbit or quackgrass.

I love the idea of teaching children to grow plants. For my generation that amounted to sprouting mustard cress in little pots, and that seemed enough at the time, given the general exposure to nature and locally grown vegetables.

So I have tended to attach a healthy skepticism to those pushing school gardens, suspecting that they may know a lot about environmental education but not much about a weed named hairy galinsoga.

My jaundiced views are reinforced when I see books and blogs about starting school gardens where there is lots of advice about lobbying, fundraising and forming committees but little honest talk about the hours required and the skills needed to keep an edible garden humming along.

As school gardens become wildly popular, the folks who help teachers, parents and environmental groups to create them are pressing home this message.

The Washington Youth Garden, which has been helping school gardeners for 40 years, maintains a large demonstration garden at the National Arboretum and last year had more than 400 requests for help in starting school gardens.

"We try to get schools to understand you can build it but there's so much more involved in the process," said Kaifa Anderson-Hall, program director.

The organization works with grade-school teachers to offer an eight-week science program before any garden is started. The course combines classroom instruction with visits to the demonstration garden, the latter for two days.

As for school gardens, the key is to find at least one teacher or other school employee with gardening experience to lead a team of new cultivators, young and old.

"It's really difficult if you come to a school where no one has experience," she said.

Last year, the group helped Center City Public Charter School in Northeast Washington's Trinidad neighborhood to create its first garden, headed by teacher Helen Bowers, an experienced gardener.

The school formed a garden club and enlisted the help of parents, students and community volunteers, said Monica Evans, the principal.

"This year we are hoping to get more input from the students, so they can become more involved in the planning and harvesting," Evans said. The school is small, with 227 students, and the garden consists of about 10 large container beds.

One of the difficulties for school gardens is that the main season coincides with summer vacation. That is why it is critical to have a gardening team in place so that parents, students and volunteers are lined up for the dog day tasks of watering, weeding and harvesting. Many of the District's school gardens have been adopted by master gardeners for summer care.

"There's no one way for every school," but building a team is vital, said Gilda Allen, environmental program specialist in the District's Department of the Environment and co-chair of the D.C. Schoolyard Greening Committee. "When there's a lot of parent and community involvement, we pretty much know there's going to be maintenance," said Allen, who has helped to establish 30, or about half, of the school gardens in the District.

At the youth garden at the National Arboretum, staff direct 12 teenagers from the city's summer youth employment program, "from prepping a bed to planting, to all aspects of cultivation," said Kacie Warner, education coordinator.

"You have to get dirt under your nails," said Christophe A.G. Tulou, director of the D.C. Department of the Environment. "When you do that you understand the relationship between the rain that falls and the seed you plant and nourishment you provide."

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