Fourth-grader London Dent works with a volunteer to plant herbs in the new garden at Ketcham Elementary School in Washington, D.C. Similar gardens are planned for schools in Maryland and Virginia. (Victoria Milko/For The Washington Post)

On a warm, overcast morning last week, Ketcham Elementary School received a very dirty makeover. Volunteers, along with a few older students, filled a half-dozen fruit and vegetable beds with soil, hammered a birdhouse into shape and set a pair of young fruit trees in place.

Posts for a split-rail fence were jammed into the ground, and amid the noise of saws and shovels, one Ketcham preschooler just had to know: “Are we building a house?”

Not quite. Ketcham, in the Anacostia neighborhood of Southeast Washington, was building a garden with the help of a nonprofit organization called Real School Gardens.

Founded 10 years ago in Fort Worth, Texas, the group has partnered with more than 100 schools to build gardens that teachers can use for hands-on lessons in science, math and even language arts. This is the group’s second garden in the Washington area, following a cold, wet dig at Beacon Heights Elementary School in Riverdale, Maryland, last fall.

A garden can be more than just a place where plants grow and flowers bloom, it turns out.

Amira Fox, a first-grader at Ketcham, prepares to plant herbs in the garden. Teachers will use the space for lessons in science, math and even language arts. (Victoria Milko/For the Washington Post )

“This will help build empathy with the outdoors,” said principal Maisha Riddlesprigger, noting that many Ketcham students tend to stay indoors because of violence in the neighborhood.

Planting and maintaining a garden, she added, would help kids learn how to care for “something greater than just themselves.”

When everything’s ripe or in bloom, there will be plenty to care for. Following a design created by Sydnei Harrington, a sixth-grader who recently graduated from Ketcham, the garden includes tasty kale, strawberries, carrots, squash, beans, tomatoes, garlic and peas.

An herb garden, next to a gazebo with a whiteboard where teachers can lead lessons, includes parsley, oregano, lavender, spearmint and sage. Colorful pansies and gerbera daisies are mixed in, too, along with a grapevine, an apple tree and a serviceberry tree with edible berries.

Food scraps from the cafeteria will be composted in the garden, and some of the fruit and vegetables that are grown will be given to students’ families, Riddlesprigger said.

Real School Gardens will hold a workshop with Ketcham teachers later this spring to offer ideas for how to use the learning garden, sometimes in surprising ways. Alison Risso, a spokeswoman for the group, described a memorable language arts lesson about adjectives. Kids were asked to “write down as many descriptive words as you can” for a leaf they found outside. The leaves were then mixed up in a pile, and the teacher had to try to match the leaves to their descriptions.

The organization will meet with Ketcham teachers for the next several years to help customize class lessons in the garden. Gardens are also planned for schools in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia.

“I’m excited,” said Kira Manigo, 8, “but I don’t know how the garden is going to turn out.” Wearing a bright green T-shirt over her navy Ketcham polo, she was one of several third- and fourth-graders helping a class of preschool students paint decorative stones for the garden. Kira said she would like to see some rutabagas and cherry trees grow alongside the strawberries that are already being planted.

But she and Tahnya Faulkner, 10, had one little concern.

“Growing stuff like apple trees and carrots” would be fun, said Tahnya, but only “when there’s not a lot of bugs.”