Respecting the Playground: Gardening Projects in Richmond Public Schools

Everyone is going green these days and local schools are no exception. Aside from promoting recycling and reusable merchandise in the school shops, parents and administrators are recognizing the importance of getting kids involved with growing things on school grounds.

Everyone is going green these days and local schools are no exception. Aside from promoting recycling and reusable merchandise in the school shops, parents and administrators are recognizing the importance of getting kids involved with growing things on school grounds. Important concepts like overconsumption, waste production, and learning where food comes from are imperative in today’s environmentally-conscious society. What better than to teach upcoming generations about these issues so that they might grow up with a “sense of environmental responsibility,” as Sarah Gross, PTA President of Fox Elementary, puts it.

Most of these gardening projects are still in their infancy.

Inside a pre-existing greenhouse, attached to the second floor science lab of George Washington Carver Elementary, first graders are starting to grow things again. With help from VCU’s Psi Chi, an International Honor Society in Psychology, the green house has been refurbished and fitted with shovels, trowels, gloves, and watering cans for the first graders to garden with. Since the greenhouse just reopened this past fall, first grade teacher, Alex Mustico plans to plant quick-maturing plants like spinach, lettuce, and turnips. “There’s been talk about growing an herb garden up there,” Mustico adds, “but we’re still working on getting funding for that.”

Carver is also waiting on funding to repair the irrigation system in the greenhouse as well as some minor ventilation problems, but Mustico asserts that greenhouse is still functional despite the wear and tear. Psi Chi has provided student volunteers and funding, but for now it is up to the first grade class to water and weed the beds. Each week rotations of 2 – 3 students are sent to learn about how plants grow and how to take care of them. About half the first grade class toured the greenhouse last semester. This semester, the second half will get their chance.

Schools like Linwood Holton Elementary want to incorporate all grade levels. Thanks to some generous parents and advising from Tricycle Gardens Holton has cultivated a vast community garden, centered around the Hudson House, recently built this past May. The Hudson House is an outdoor classroom — designed to look like a flying insect — sheltering picnic tables where 20 – 30 students at a time can go and study plants they dig up from the surrounding gardens.

“[It’s] very hands-on, definitely. We’ve learned that hands-on experimentation and an interdisciplinary approach to learning really improves the child’s ability to think and helps the powers to observe, as opposed to just looking at it in a book,” — Susanna Raffenot, co-chair of the Holton Learning Garden Project

The Hudson House also includes a three-pallet compost bin which includes worm-composting furnished by an environmentally-friendly parent who provides the worms’ bedding and food. Students can measure the temperature and decomposition of the compost piles and learn when to move them from bin to bin.

There is also a tool shed with a live roof donated by parents. “These are actual plants that are on top of the shed roof,” Raffenot points out. The purpose of the live roof is to demonstrate to the children that, “if you’re building a building then you’re taking down trees or plants…this is really just [a way of] replacing the part that you took down, which also has a cooling affect on the atmosphere,” says Raffenot.

Fox Elementary can also boast a newly integrated gardening project called Fox Farm. The farm was just set up this past fall on the playground behind the school. “We just built raised beds in October, so the idea is that every student will have a square foot in these raised beds to farm,” says Fox principal, Daniela Jacobs. Planting in the farm is set to begin this spring.

Fox Farm was conceptualized by a parent, and is mostly funded by parents, but organizations such as Relay Foods and Area Ten Faith Community are also involved. When asked what inspired Fox Farm Principal Jacobs replied, “Often if you ask [our children] where food comes from, they say, ‘The grocery store.’…So by them actually growing things from seeds (and we will hopefully be eating salad this spring before the kids go home for summer break from the farm), they’ll have a full picture of what it means to be a good steward of our environment.”

Environmental understanding isn’t the only thing that’s important for farming at the elementary level. “It’s just fun,” says Allison Mesnard, Horticulture & Education Specialist at Tricycle Gardens. “It’s just fun to be outside, it’s fun to see growing things, it’s very healing, it’s very healthy for children just to be in the garden. They can just taste the food and it becomes sort of a powerful experience that they will remember going forward in their lives.”

Mesnard also stresses that in order for community gardens to succeed in Richmond Public Schools, it requires the effort of the entire community. The students and grounds people cannot be expected to shoulder all the burden; a garden needs the most care over summer break, when school is not in session. Even if schools plan to shut the garden down over the summer, fall vegetables need to be planted in late July and August, when no one is around. “Whoever’s doing it, they need to be pretty organized,” Mesnard points out. “They’ve got to get the parents involved, they’ve got to get the surrounding community to buy into it and see it as a community project.”

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Pat Kardian

Pat is in her last semester at VCU, getting ready to graduate with a double major in English and History. In the past, she interned with Capital City Books (the most awesome publishing company in the world), proofreading, editing, and writing for the company’s blog. Now she’s excited to be interning with RVANews, trying to come up with news-worthy ideas. She loves to write. Anything and everything. She also adores pets, snow, and being outside. And don’t bother challenging her at 500 Rummy because you’re going down.

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