Grateful for School Gardens

PUBLISHED IN THE RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL

Article by Kathy Williams, sidebar by Ashley Andrews

Master Gardener Kathy Williams and Cooperative Extension Community Based Instructor Jenny Digesti at the Grow Yourself Healthy school garden at Libby Booth. Photo by Master Gardener Bill Kositzky.
Master Gardener Kathy Williams and Cooperative Extension Community Based Instructor Jenny Digesti at the Grow Yourself Healthy school garden at Libby Booth. Photo by Master Gardener Bill Kositzky.

This November, the Great Basin Community Food Coop encouraged us to incorporate locally-grown ingredients into our holiday recipes. This strikes home for me as a gardener, health professional and school garden volunteer. I am grateful this holiday season and all year long to help our area’s children learn about how to grow and enjoy healthy, local foods.

My interest in school gardens comes from a deep passion for promoting children’s health. As a school nurse RN for the last twenty-plus years, I know that many of the chronic illnesses like type two diabetes, hypertension and obesity can be reduced by lifestyle changes that can be taught to young children. The Grow Yourself Healthy program at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, taught by Registered Dietitians and a Master Gardener, is an outdoor classroom that incorporates learning about healthy foods, tasting a variety of foods and having the experience to grow fruits and vegetables.

There is nothing quite like the squeal of a fourth grade boy who has just harvested his first potato! Interacting with children requires prep work and patience. I have learned to be flexible, have extra supplies in case a gust of wind blows all the seeds from a student’s hand and to keep smiling when a tender seedling breaks due to over-zealous hands. Children learn in different ways and engaging their senses and natural wonder is key to a student’s successful experience.

We grow plants with interesting scents, like chocolate mint, compare the size of carrot seeds and squash seeds and watch a tomato horn worms munching leaves– oh no! I especially like to grow seeds or plants with interesting names: dinosaur kale, jelly bean tomatoes or green comet broccoli. We have planted gardens with themes: salsa, pizza, salad and butterfly.

Some of my students have special needs: physical, intellectual or emotional. A student in a wheelchair is able to plant a strawberry plant if you plan ahead so he can plant at the edge of the bed instead of reaching into the middle. Some students may need your hands over theirs to hold the trowel or cradle a seedling. A student’s pride in growing a seedling is priceless and may have been the most success he or she has had all week.

Many students may not have garden space where they live but may have room for a container. At our school garden, we plant some vegetables in containers and also have available at our annual plant sale some seedlings that do well in containers. Encouraging families to grow some fresh vegetables is key in helping them to make healthy lifestyle choices.

During my “grow” time with the students, we cover a variety of topics. What is on the seed packet? How deep should seeds be planted? What is healthy soil? How should various plants be watered? What is the role of pollinators? This time to learn in the school garden can be an important part of school culture.

The Grow Yourself Healthy lessons incorporate math, science and reading standards. And, the skills learned in growing food and choosing to eat fresh fruits and vegetables can last a lifetime. In school gardens, children learn where food comes from and they begin to see how they can do their part to be stewards of our land. Are these lofty ideas for our children? I think not. “To plant a garden is to believe in the future” – Anonymous.

Kathy Williams is a Master Gardener Volunteer with Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening and landscaping in Nevada, contact a Master Gardener at mastergardeners@unce.unr.edu or 775-336-0265, or visit www.growyourownnevada.com.

Cooperative Extension’s Grow Yourself Healthy program provides nutrition education enhanced by the creation and innovative use of school-based gardens. The project’s goals are to foster healthful eating habits and increase physical activity, whereby instilling lifelong behaviors for reducing obesity and chronic disease prevention. An integrated nutrition/horticulture curriculum is taught with content linked to education standards. Grow Yourself Healthy is conducted with kindergarten through fifth grade students at two Washoe County elementary schools. Both schools have a high percentage of students eligible for free or reduced price meals, a proxy indicator of low-income status. The increased obesity and chronic disease risks of these children is heightened by their socioeconomic status and, in many cases, ethnicity. For information about Grow Yourself Healthy, contact Christina Turner at turnerc@unce.unr.edu.

Growing a School Garden

School and community gardens are great assets to our communities, our education and our health. They provide active outdoor classrooms for physical and intellectual exercise. The fresh and local produce piques our pallets and reduces our waistlines. But, getting a school or community garden off the ground can be a big task. A successful garden requires lots of planning in addition to lots of digging, planting and watering.

Begin your school and community garden plans by defining the purpose for and goals of the garden. Then, start brainstorming questions and answers. Where will the garden be? Is there enough sunlight or too much wind there? How big will the garden be? Is water available? How much will the water cost? Who will pay for it? What are the liability issues? How can they be resolved? Who will build the garden? Who will help? Who will pay for it? What will we grow?

Plan on starting small and growing larger later. Small starts enable garden usage, maintenance and logistics issues to be resolved as they come up with minimal stress. One way to make starting small a simpler task is to start with a container garden.

Large or small, gardens need people, and you will need help! Remember to cultivate not just your garden but also a support system. Seek out and nurture school or community garden partners to get your new garden off of the ground. For more information, visit http://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/ho/2010/sp1014.pdf.

Ashley Andrews is the Horticulture Assistant with Cooperative Extension.

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