School gardens revisited in D.C.

At Center City Public Charter School in Trinidad, students harvest their first crop of carrots from large container gardens. From left, Jermyh Holiday, Destiny Davis, Daynna Stewart, Kayla Speed, Kierra Archie, Z'Andre Cromartie and Curtis Bowen.
At Center City Public Charter School in Trinidad, students harvest their first crop of carrots from large container gardens. From left, Jermyh Holiday, Destiny Davis, Daynna Stewart, Kayla Speed, Kierra Archie, Z'Andre Cromartie and Curtis Bowen. (Kaifa Anderson-hall)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 10:29 AM

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.


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