By England Avis, Community Fellow
The untapped potential of a brand new school garden program is limitless. The courtyard garden at Bessie Weller was installed in 2018 with great thanks to a dedicated team from Mary Baldwin University and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant. After installation, the 20 raised beds in the garden sat silently, practically begging for someone to sprinkle seeds into the soil and patiently awaiting the day when students would fill the space with their curiosity and excitement.
When I came into the role of Garden Coordinator this past January, I was thrilled with endless ideas of how to transform the space, how to engage with the Bessie community, and how to foster connections between growing plants and eating healthy foods. I dreamt of a thriving summer garden club with happy students, vegetable taste-tests in classrooms, an accessible farmstand to provide the produce we grew to the community, and open house events to engage student’s families in the space. But before I knew it, all plans were knocked off course when the pandemic hit, just two months into the start of the garden program.
When the school shut down in March, I feared my position was in jeopardy; after all, how can a school garden program be successful if it is missing the main component - students? However, as food shortages at grocery stores became a common experience, I quickly learned that the pandemic actually illuminated the importance of my position: to grow food and build community. This year may have been quite different than what I had planned for, but despite all the challenges, I’m reminded that I have made many positive impacts during my Community Action year with Allegheny Mountain Institute.
Join me in recollecting a handful of moments and memories from the 2020 School Garden Program at Bessie Weller Elementary in Staunton, Virginia.
The first students I took to the garden were in Ms.Wilson’s 3rd-grade class. They had just learned about water conservation and so we studied the new rain barrels, observed how they collect water, and discussed the importance of recycling this water for our plants.
This group of students learned about decomposition and quickly observed that compost doesn’t have to smell bad! But, watch out for those monster slugs helping decompose the food and garden scraps!
When children of all grade levels stopped in the hall to observe this seed germination experiment, I heard gasps of awe as students realized that tiny seeds hold life inside of them!
While students were quarantined at home in early spring, little did they know the garden was starting to show signs of life: the first seedlings were growing in the raised beds!
By mid-spring, I was really missing having students around to help in the garden! I teamed up with Project Grows on their Signs of Spring video series to create a fun way for students to engage in gardening from home. If you’d like to learn more about Square Foot Gardening, watch our video here: https://www.projectgrows.org/2020/06/2826/
I planned for garden harvests to be used in classroom taste tests and in the cafeteria, but I found so much joy in sharing this fresh produce with local food pantries for community members to enjoy instead.
As garden beds filled up with plants, I had to get creative to find a new home for the rest of the seedlings I started in the greenhouse! I hosted a plant stand and invited teachers to grab some plants to grow at home throughout the summer. This proved a successful way to make sure these baby plants found a new home to thrive in and gave teachers a way to keep busy!
By early summer, the garden was well underway. Each day was a surprise, finding new spurts of growth or noticing interesting insects.
Garden harvests were plentiful and I continued to donate to local pantries, sharing the gift of fresh healthy food with our community.
Before I knew it, the garden was exploding with life! This picture shows an interactive Three Sisters garden and sunflower room. This provided a real-life example of Native American contributions to agriculture, where students could enter the sunflower room to see the beans sending their tendrils out to trellis up on the thick stalks, and find squash to harvest down below.
Pollinators are both an important part of the curriculum and the ecosystem, so I planted many varieties of Milkweed and got the garden certified as a Monarch Waystation!
When teachers returned to the building to prepare for the new school year, I was thrilled to share fresh garden treats as often as I could. Each time I placed fresh produce on the window ledge, I was delightfully surprised when I returned the following day to see that every vegetable had made its way into someone’s kitchen!
Shortly after school began 100% virtually in the fall, we were approved to welcome students to return to the building for Marvelous Monday Explorer clubs! I created a theme for each session and I loved having students join me in this growing space.
It was so rewarding to finally welcome students back into the garden for Monday Explorers! We explored through scavenger hunts, learned about migration and made natural bird feeders, learned about worm compost with 4H, took responsibility for our environment as good citizens and cleaned up the streamside trail, and of course, weeded the garden. Students always took home bouquets of fresh flowers!
To wrap up my year with Bessie, I wanted to do something special for the teachers. I hosted a Fall Planting Party and invited staff to “plant their wishes” for the Bessie family and leave their mark with a message or their name, so they can easily find their flowers in bloom next spring and for years to come. I know these special blooms will bring years of happiness to everyone involved with this garden.
Watching the garden transform and students explore the space with curiosity has been the most rewarding part of my year as a Garden Coordinator. While things may not have gone as originally planned, we adapted together and created a beautiful habitat for many to enjoy. After 375+ pounds of food grown and harvested with my own two hands, 25+ educational sessions and community workshops offered, and 200+ individuals taught, I feel great about my time spent with Allegheny Mountain Institute and Bessie Weller Elementary School. I will always reflect on this year with a sense of gratitude for this garden and the Bessie community, and for the impact Allegheny Mountain Institute has left on me.