The Dry Garden: Teaching kids how to grow food the Farmscape way
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Most people, save Atlantic magazine’s resident contrarian Caitlin Flanagan, agree that school gardens are a good thing. They encourage experimentation, critical thinking and healthful eating. Done right, they raise parental participation in schools. At their best, they’re as cute as a third-grader grubbing for worms.
Too often, however, teachers are defeated from the outset by the burden of installing and then maintaining a garden in addition to a classroom. At the most daunting end of the spectrum is Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, replete with an acre garden, chicken coop and teaching kitchen. A starry nonprofit covers the overhead cost of a large kitchen and garden staff. If it were a readily replicable model, there would be many more Edible Schoolyards.
Many steps down the ladder are the prefabricated, battleship-gray wooden boxes that have for years been distributed to schools in greater Los Angeles. The beauty of these is that almost any teacher can have one outside a classroom door. The drawback is that as teachers take summer breaks or change rooms, their box gardens languish. Planters spilling weeds, trash and perlite are an all-too-common sight.
It might seem obvious to simply break into some turf or asphalt, but soil quality can present a formidable hurdle. So there’s a lot of room for fresh ideas about how to start a school garden. One intriguing new approach is a variation on the box planter system from the Claremont firm Farmscape. Its raised beds come as part of a build-it, plant-it, tend-it package that was developed for private homes and was doing nicely when The Times covered it last year. Recently, however, educators such as Annette Gladstone have been adapting this home garden system for schools.
Gladstone runs the Segray Preschool in Atwater Village. After installing a pouch-style vertical garden, she wanted something better. The pouch garden was tall, her charges were short. Plus, she admitted, she and her staff ‘killed everything.’
She called in Farmscape. Rather than ditch the hanging garden, Farmscape created a kid-accessible planters with drip irrigation, helped to choose seeds, planted them, then came every week to weed, water and harvest plants from the planters and the hanging pouches.
When roving Farmscape gardener Lowell Frank, pictured above, arrives at a school, rather than have one chatty homeowner he has a dozen or so chatty kids. ‘Farmer Lowell!’ they scream as he arrives.
‘Every time I meet a new kid, I write down his name and study the list before I come in,’ Frank said during a break at Segray.
Whether the customer is at a school or a home, the final step for Frank after harvesting is filling a basket with fresh produce, weighing it and leaving it for the client. If it goes into the refrigerator reasonably promptly, Frank reckons, it will have double, even triple, the shelf life of store-bought vegetables. Not that the produce lasts that long at Segray. ‘We cook on Fridays with the kids,’ Gladstone said.
Farmscape services aren’t cheap. Depending on the size of the garden, installation of beds, irrigation, soil and the planting can run into the thousands of dollars. Follow-up visits from Farmscape staff run about $200 a week. So when the president of the parent-teacher organization of San Jose-Edison Academy, a West Covina charter school, got a grant from a local business, she worked to stretch the dollars. Instead of having Farmscape build the beds, Maria Chavira organized a community build during which kids and their families turned out to piece the planters together, no tools required. The result is pictured above. Below, from left: Jon Bassett (standing) and Daniel Allen trim vegetables as students look on; Natalie Saavedra holds on to carrots; Alexia Alvarez, Isabella Acosta and Natalie watch the Farmscape guys at work.
When it came to maintenance, Chavira, a former teacher, knew the limits of school staff.
‘I garden at home, but nothing like this,’ she said, gesturing to the network of beds bearing well-tended vegetables. So Edison signed up for a maintenance program. They opted for Farmer Jon (Bassett, below) to come once a month instead of once a week. He leaves the garden immaculate and shows teachers and Chavira what to do in his absence. Vegetable sales in the teachers lounge are coming close to covering the cost of his visits.
The garden is less than a year old, and Academy Director Donna Hale envisions teaching tables for the center of the garden. That will take more farmers markets and community work days and maybe even an angel donor. The group has just started developing curricula so teachers can use the space as an outdoor classroom without any harm to test scores. That said, the garden is already earning its keep by teaching nutrition. ‘You’d be amazed how many kids learn that ketchup comes from tomatoes out here,’ Chavira said.
As Hale ended a brief visit in the garden, Farmer Jon asked her what she’d like to see in the spring garden as the aging broccoli, radishes and kale are pulled.
Hale responded: ‘Get me a list, dude.’
-- Emily Green
Green’s column on sustainable gardening appears here on Fridays. For an easy way to follow her and other coverage, join our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.
Corrected: An earlier version of this post attributed Academy Director Donna Hale’s comments to Principal Denise Patton.