School gardens are growing — in quantity, in educational purpose and in production.
At Lexington's Millcreek Elementary, teacher Kristina Blair's first-grade class is working with University of Kentucky horticulture professor emeritus Mary Witt and the Fayette County Farm Bureau Women's Committee to grow container gardens with flowers and vegetables.
"We want to encourage kids to get their hands in the dirt," Witt says.
Through the Farm Bureau partnership, the class receives baskets of educational materials, and gloves, butterfly kits and plants.
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Blair's students love the activity.
"Our first-grade container garden has been a wonderful project already — in just one week," she said. "The children loved preparing the soil and planting the plants, and have tended them each day. We've been linking this hands-on project to literature as well as math.
"The students work together to take care of their plants, so it has also proved to be a bonding experience as we get to know one another at the start of the school year."
At Lexington's Ashland Elementary, parent and Fayette County School Garden Coalition organizer Jo Stone, principal Schuronda Morton and art teacher Bev Brue collaborated to install three wooden raised-bed planters that now are overflowing with beans, beets, basil and other vegetables. It has become an outdoor classroom in a tiny space behind the school.
With the help of other parents, Stone, students and volunteers also maintain a larger organic garden at Temple Adath Israel, just down the street block away on Ashland Avenue. Fourth- and fifth-graders garden there during a weekly elective class time. They share tending the garden with the temple's religious school classes.
Donations for compost bins, compost, other equipment, seeds, and cabbage and cauliflower seedlings came easily.
"Because I'm doing this on a shoestring budget, I'm not shy when I talk with people about donations, and people simply want to help support children's gardens," Stone said.
The gardens are used for all sorts of lessons. For math, students use yardsticks to measure seed spacing and growth. For science, they observe insect life cycles while picking grubs out of soil while preparing beds. Students are engaged and active, Stone said.
"You should have seen their faces when they first saw broccoli growing," Stone said. "Some had never been in a garden before."
Stone still feels that wonder when her seeds begin germinating indoors in late winter, and the first leaves emerge.
"L'chaim," she says. "To life!"
Tresine Logsdon, the energy and sustainability curriculum coordinator for Fayette County Public Schools, estimated that more than 55 percent of Fayette schools have some sort of garden being used for educational purposes.
The increased interest in school gardens has resulted in creation of the school garden coalition in Fayette County (www.sustainability.fcps.net/school-garden-coalition) and the Kentucky School Garden Network (Kyschoolgardens.org), which provides resources.
Help for these gardens has come from all directions, including Logsdon; child nutritionist Marty Flynn; lead grounds worker Sue Marshall; and Sara Tracy, community liaison for the district's new Locust Trace AgriScience Farm. Members of community groups including the Tracy Farmer Center for the Environment, Seedleaf, the Fayette County Health Department, the Cooperative Extension Service, Bluegrass PRIDE and others have shared their expertise.
Nationally, influence has come from first lady Michele Obama's kitchen garden, installed on the White House grounds with local schoolchildren, and the model developed by California chef and local food advocate Alice Waters in The Edible Schoolyard project.
Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear also is a gardening advocate.
"Community and school gardens provide a unique way for students and families to learn about the importance of sustainability, environmental awareness and healthy eating," Beshear said via email. "Learning to garden at a young age instills in our students the values of nutrition and environmental consciousness while also giving them hands-on learning experiences and lessons in cooperation.
"I've personally seen the positive effect gardening has on our young people through the Governor's Garden Initiative, which we began in 2009 in an effort to promote community gardening, and I continue to encourage and support any effort to both grow gardens and young minds."
Organizers have discovered that experienced gardeners who know when and which vegetables to plant, and volunteers willing to dig in and get their hands dirty and to build raised beds and compost bins, are essential. Add planners who can round up support, navigate regulations, address food safety and nutrition issues, and develop ideas for integrating gardening into the curriculum, and it's easy to see that maintaining a successful school garden requires a team effort and informed collaborators.
Logsdon lists a number of outreach opportunities for those interested in supporting school gardens: fund-raising and securing grants or donations for materials and supplies; donating compost and topsoil, plants or untreated lumber for raised beds; and creating interpretive signs for plants, beds and gardens.
Volunteers can give time to help supervise planting, weeding, maintenance and harvest, especially when school is not in session.
Community members and parents must complete a volunteer application when working with students. Applications are available at Fcps.net/how-do-i/volunteer.