by Brandi Mendenall
Central High School
s I watched the dump truck unload what would be the first of three loads of the highest quality compost our small school club could afford, I could not help but wonder if we really understood the scale of the project we were about to launch. Three years ago, my colleague Paul and I had a common goal, to bring an educational and productive garden to our urban school community. We had both maintained small gardens at our homes, but neither had attempted anything of this magnitude. Our school environmental club was comprised of a small group of regular attendees, and we invited everyone, staff, students, and parents, to assist us with the setup of the garden. The volunteer turnout was promising and we got a great start that first day. By the time the day wrapped, the dirt was poured, scattered, and held in place by a natural stone border. I recall standing over the garden and visualizing its future, my prior reservations were quickly subsiding. We began in the fall and worked tirelessly for months planning for the upcoming spring planting season. The state of Missouri is home to countless beautiful native shrubs and flowers; keeping with the natural landscape while also harvesting produce was the ultimate goal. We were devoted to using heirloom seeds, which we were able to purchase nearby at a popular seed company, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They offered us a great variety, both native and global, and were always available to answer our questions.
We utilized our small school greenhouse to get the seedlings for our new garden started. It did not take long to discover some significant issues with the greenhouse; the most substantial concern involved one of the most crucial aspects to growing plants, watering. The drain on the greenhouse floor is at a higher elevation than the rest of the floor; the watering system that many people spent hours putting together was unable to be utilized without flooding the room. In response to what we viewed as a disaster, our students created a watering schedule and took turns taking care of the seedlings while they developed and grew.
We had more success growing than we anticipated, being our first time growing this many plants, we were unsure what to expect. Our plants flourished, we had enough to fill our garden as well as make money for the club by selling the extra plants. Before the school year wrapped we were able to get the plants into the garden with the help of our many volunteers, which once again included students, staff, and parents. We found that growing and planting was a great way for our students to form relationships with their peers, and we were anxious to pursue getting more community involvement.
Our first garden was a success, so much so that we began expanding. We now have four garden spaces that we are working on developing, and have plans for more in the near future. We are starting a new club at our school this year with a sole focus on gardening and environmental sustainability education. One of our garden spaces includes six large squares embedded along a well traveled sidewalk that we assume at one time had life, when we took over they were filled with dead grass, weeds, rocks, and dirt. We asked various clubs and groups at our school to “adopt” a square and make it beautiful again. This project is still a work in progress, but all the squares have been adopted and renovations have begun. By next summer we foresee a new look to the area. We are excited to have such a variety of people helping with our gardens; our secretaries have even adopted a space.
We have had kinks along the way, finances are always an issue, but we have received generous donations of plants from a local business to help fill our gardens. Keeping the gardens watered throughout the summer when schedules are busy has been another challenge, but we have managed and this year we were able to make significant improvements to our outdoor watering system with more hoses and supplies. It has been a learning experience for everyone involved; we have many dreams and goals for our garden venture and plan to get many more people involved in the process.
“Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to garden and the whole neighborhood gets tomatoes, and squash, and cucumbers….”-unknown
It is our intention to eventually teach the entire neighborhood to garden, the possibilities are endless. I encourage anyone with the dream of starting a garden project in their school to get it started today; it has been an amazing addition to our school, not only for the beatification of the campus but for the social climate of the school community as well.
-Brandi Mendenall is a science teacher at Central High School in Springfield, Missouri.