Garden helps students learn about food

Gardens across the nation participated Friday in National Public Gardens Day, an event designed to raise awareness of public gardens and their role in promoting education and environmental stewardship in the communities they serve.

In the spirit of the occasion, Descanso Gardens gave visitors a peek inside its own Harvest Garden, a veritable “secret garden” that has been in operation for nearly 60 years but has never opened its gates to the public.

The Harvest Garden gives local students between the ages of ages 8 and 22 who are living with disabilities a chance to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and learn about the long journey involved in getting food from its source to the plate. Ten classes from six area schools, including La Cañada High School, plant and tend to garden plots of their own design, according to Descanso Education Coordinator Hannah Wiggins, who runs the Harvest Garden.

During weekly outings, more than 100 students come to garden but stay for arts and crafts as well as food and cooking demonstrations. On Friday, chefs from DISH restaurant in La Cañada grilled up vegetables in an interactive lesson that ended with tasty treats for everyone.

Throughout the garden, volunteers work with students and help maintain the area. It was volunteers who originally created the concept of a garden area where children with special needs could take a break from their highly structured school days, Wiggins said. Today, the land spans nearly 5 acres and includes a fruit tree orchard that students can harvest.

“The goal is (teaching them) from the seed to the table, to grow, cook and eat and see how food works,” said Wiggins.

What looks like a casual day in the garden is actually a series of teachable moments in disguise, said garden volunteer and La Cañada resident Gracella Gibbs. She became a volunteer after retiring as a Glendale teacher to honor her father, Sid Crocker, who himself was a Harvest Garden volunteer years ago.

The program is good for students, Gibbs said, because it promotes social and physical growth, while helping build fine and gross motor skills as students garden and create arts and crafts.

“Some children need social interaction, and some of them have never had an outdoor experience. Some need the tactile stimulation,” she said. “This garden is such a fabulous experience for the kids and the volunteers, too.”

That is something to which La Crescenta mom Helene Smith can personally attest. Her 9-year-old daughter, Abby, attends classes for deaf and hard-of-hearing students at Burbank’s George Washington School.

“Just to see her have that level of interest in something, and her enthusiasm for it, is a neat thing,” Smith said. “This program really encourages her to be herself.”

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