Monday, October 4, 2010
It is a glorious afternoon, a balmy 75, flooded with sun. The lettuces in one of our kindergarten beds – red-leaf, romaine, buttercrunch – spread their leaves to take in the early autumn light. In our other garden, back behind the school, the sweet potato vines have long escaped their bed, and Charlotte the writing spider stands guard over the remnants of a crop of black-eyed peas.
Our "Food for Thought" vegetable garden is one of my favorite Shamrock programs. During the past three years, the garden has let our kids participate in the miracles of nature by growing crops such as dinosaur kale, giant red mustard, Hopi Black Dye sunflowers and Shamrock Gold cherry tomatoes. They've produced towering stalks of okra and bright-orange bitter melons that open to reveal deep crimson, heart-shaped seeds. They've learned that worms have mouths and discovered a nest of baby rabbits tucked into the middle of a potato patch.
The lessons of our gardens extend well beyond their boundaries.
Last fall, for example, gardeners Amy Hayes and Michaele Fitzpatrick held a session on the mysteries of broccoli, one of a series of cooking and nutrition classes that they have designed to go with the garden. A group of first graders who had planted, tended and then harvested a broccoli patch took time to marvel at the deep green, bumpy heads they had produced, to inhale their aroma, and then to taste with care, top and bottom, raw and cooked. A far cry from "eat your vegetables." For the rest of the year, Amy later recalled, kids kept coming up to her and saying "I eat broccoli all the time now."
This spring, when a team of boys produced a bumper potato crop, they sat down with a phone book and made calls until they reached a food bank that could use a donation.
This has not been a small undertaking. A successful school garden depends on clearing space of many kinds – a challenging task in a busy, stressful time.
It starts, of course, with a sunny swath of ground that can be cleared and planted.
But it also requires space in people's lives, a place to cultivate the patience, creativity and dedication required to keep a cycle of crops growing year-round, despite the vagaries of weather, weeds and bugs, as well as the demands of jobs and families.
And these days, teachers must work to clear space for dirt and seeds in a curriculum jam-packed with requirements and aimed straight at the three or four spring days that students will spend huddled over test papers, filling small circles with pencil. March and April can be tough months in our garden – just as the earth warms up for planting and things start to come alive, the test-prep pressure grows, and anxiety threatens to overrun spring's sense of possibility.
Our garden's bountiful triumph over these many challenges is due primarily to Amy and Michaele, two remarkable volunteers who for the past three years have regularly made the 90-minute round trip up from Rock Hill to plant and water, weed and teach.
At a high-poverty school like Shamrock, it's not so hard to find volunteers willing to commit a few hours – once-a-week reading buddy, clean-up-day worker, one-time event organizer. It's another thing entirely to find people to build and maintain a transformative program, year after year. We are so lucky.
Amy and Michaele first came to Shamrock early in 2008, as part of an effort by Slow Food Charlotte to create one of the "edible schoolyards" that have become all the rage around the country. As so often happens, the effort started with a good-sized group that then dwindled as a variety of distractions began to pull people away. But Amy and Michaele have stuck it out, assisted by our school nurse, Suzanne. Michaele is a nurse herself, dedicated to locally grown food and the role it plays in healthy eating. She slices broccoli with the best. Amy is a transplant from Texas, a master grower eagerly meeting the challenges of a new region and climate.
They started small, with four raised beds. As they tested, planned and started to plant, they became familiar figures at the school, tromping around in boots, jeans and floppy straw hats, Amy with a seed box full of an ever-changing variety of intriguing packets. After that first year, they added a larger space at the back of the school, enlisting husbands, sons and a few other volunteers to dig and weed.
Now, both gardens teem with ideas as well as plants – fenugreek as a cover crop, a hummingbird vine to shade a wall that blasts heat into a nearby bed, Chinese long beans and lemon basil mingling with corn, peppers and tomatoes. Last month, Parker's class cleared an area for wheat, which they plan to grow, harvest and then make into bread (if they can manage to outwit the Hessian fly, which thwarted Thomas Jefferson and kept wheat from becoming a significant Southern crop). In a few weeks, we will plant a pomegranate tree.
For the first couple of years, we weren't real good at finding help for them. For so many of our families, the press of children, illness, shelter, balky vehicles, economic needs and other obligations makes it tremendously difficult to keep space in their lives for school gardening, week in and week out.
But maybe that's starting to change. This year, a couple of our moms – Bobbie and Maria – have found that space, for now. Bobbie enrolled her son in kindergarten this fall. Maria, who has four children at Shamrock, put her fifth and last in pre-K. They both love dirt and plants and the outdoors, and I often see them walking to the school, Maria coming from the east and Bobbie from the west. Once there, they weed and water and chat and plot ways to involve other parents. At a time when tight budgets have squeezed so many school programs, it's great to see this one grow.