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Spotlight on the Harper Junior High School Garden: It takes a community to raise a garden

First row, left to right: Carol Rexroth, Jane Hadley, Bin Song, Cate McGuire(Lead Volunteer)

Second row: Garry Pearson (Garden Co-ordinator),Carla Knee, John Rexroth

by Lorie Hammond

This is the first of a series of articles spotlighting the gardens at DJUSD schools and a few private schools which are supported by Davis Farm to School (DF2S). My goal in writing these articles is to share information between our school gardens, each of which has developed in unique ways due to its leadership, its school community and its environmental goals. I also hope to demonstrate to the greater community how our school gardens enhance our school sites. For the first time this year, DF2S is led by a district employee, Nate Tauzer, a sixth generation farmer. This district commitment illustrates how our gardens and school environments are becoming an increasingly strong part of our students’ educational experience. I could not have chosen a better school site than Harper Junior High School to begin this series, since this school has developed an impressive garden and trees program on its relatively new site, and proovides an excellent example of educational enrichment, volunteerism, and networking within and beyond its school site.

Enter the garden at Harper and you will see over a half-acre of vegetables, growing at various levels, on the ground and elevated on trellises, flowers, and bushes. A new perennial garden of California natives is just being planned as well as an herb garden. The garden is grown year-round due to the constant efforts and skills of the garden team to offer diversity and beauty.

“You can’t develop and maintain a school garden without an ongoing community of volunteers.” This statement was made by Garry Pearson, retired District Career and Technical Education Director and Harper garden co-manager. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, a team of adults works joyfully to create a large, diverse and beautiful garden hidden behind Harper School. This group is now being led by Cate McGuire, a retired plant horticulturist, and has both long-term commitment and expertise. While the current volunteers are mostly mature people, some retired parents, neighbors and other community members volunteer when they are able to join the group for an hour or two.

The Harper garden supports the curriculum at Harper and also is part of a much larger network. The Friday I visited, the team had picked two large tables full of vegetables being donated to Korematsu and Valley Oak preschools. Recently, the Harper garden provided boxes of tomatoes for Salsa Week at Pioneer Elementary School. Garry and others have created a network which both supports the Harper garden and receives its bounty. This network includes very supportive school administrators and staff, local businesses which donate supplies and used items, Rotary Club volunteers who created the irrigation system, UCD contacts, other school garden coordinators and more. Parents and UC Davis student interns are involved, but the key to the garden’s success is its complex networking within and beyond the school, and above all, its consistent and enduring Garden Team of adults, who stay involved year after year. Kudos to these volunteers, who make the garden possible.

How does the Harper Garden connect to the school’s curriculum? Initially, I was surprised that students do not maintain the garden. Then I was reminded that junior high school students have different schedules and goals than elementary students. They are learning to move from classroom to classroom on a fairly tight schedule during their school day. This is not compatible with gardening activities. While there are volunteer opportunities which go beyond the classroom (see Tree Harper below), the goal of the garden is to provide a “hands on learning system” for all students in the context of what they are studying, not to interrupt their studies with garden maintenance. Yet while the Harper garden is not maintained by students, all classes are involved in the garden in meaningful ways. How is this achieved? Each teacher, regardless of subject, is challenged to spend at least two teaching days in the garden during the year, and to relate what they do there to their subject matter.

The role of the garden team is to manage a garden which is beautiful, complex, and ready to be a living laboratory for classes which use it in any season. For example, Spanish classes come out and talk about the words for vegetables in Spanish, tasting what is available as they go. An art teacher frequently uses the garden for lessons on form, shape and color while also teaching drawing and sketching techniques. Recently, art students had to find and draw various shapes they see in the plants, as well as match plants to a set of pantone colors. The art teacher reports, “whenever the students hear that we are going out to the garden, there is a collective cheer.”

Biology classes come out to study many natural phenomena, including photosynthesis, evolution, and entomology. Right now various stages of the ladybug life cycle are emerging naturally on the zucchini, swiss chard and okra. Many subjects can be enhanced by a hands-on garden experience at the right time, when that experience relates to what is being studied. Harper teachers, regardless of subject, are challenged to invent relevant and educative connections between their curricula and the garden, and are provided with a beautiful living laboratory where their students can explore these connections.

Garden volunteers are motivated by the positive feedback they get from students. During the school’s open house, one student shared that he had learned to love fresh ripe tomatoes after tasting his first one in the garden. Both students and staff often mention that the garden calms them. Last November, students showed their appreciation by awarding ribbons to the garden volunteers, hanging them on the fence below.

What is Tree Harper? Meet Ken McKim, Harper biology teacher who founded Tree Harper, another remarkable environmental project at Harper Junior High. At 10:00 Friday morning, I found a group of students sitting doing academic work in chairs outside, while others were moving a huge pile of mulch with wheelbarrows and raking it around trees all over campus. Their teacher, Ken McKim, told me that they were given a choice of activity that day. He said that Harper Junior High School has an Arboretum Plan. Sixty percent of the trees on campus were planted by students as part of this plan. Biology students and students who opt to participate in Tree Harper during Club Friday after school, participate in planting trees and other landscape plants all over the campus. In addition, eight Saturdays a year, the Friends of Frances (which is short for “Friends of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Junior High”) volunteers to work on Harper’s trees and other school approved beautification projects.

Climate-ready trees are planted in groups by place of origin– groups of trees from Asia, Mexico, South America, North America, and California Natives are planted together in various parts of the campus, creating an arboretum. Beautiful plaques are made from scrap wood, etched by shop classes with tree names, and placed by the trees. In addition, each biology student is challenged to grow a plant during the school year. They can choose to grow something at home or at school. If they choose to grow a plant at school, they plant and tend their plant all year. This helps to create a diverse set of shrubs and flowers all around the school, and makes the landscape of Harper both educational and relevant to the students.

Tree Harper is a networking project, just like the Harper garden. Mr. McKim recruits and manages about 8 or 9 UC Davis interns each quarter, as well as running the extra clubs and volunteer work. Tree Harper is a really impressive addition to the biology program at Harper and to the environment throughout the school grounds. It transforms passive “landscaping”, so often seen at schools, into an active part of the educational program.

How are volunteers and the environment kept happy? Cate shared a strategy that other gardens can learn from. She said that there used to be difficult, repeating weeds that made volunteer work drudgery. People lost their motivation to volunteer if they had to weed week after week. Cate and the team responded by creating wide paths, solarized if necessary, then mulched with layers of cardboard covered with donated wood chips. The wide paths make the rows of plants almost weed-free, as well as providing ways for large groups of students to move through the garden without destroying it. The mulching program also helps the environment by creating a low-till, low-dig garden which holds carbon in the ground rather than emitting it into the air, as happens when land is dug or roto-tilled. A large area adjacent to the garden contains compost piles of school-wide landscape waste, as well as donated compost which nurtures the garden. Combined with the field of solar panels next to the garden, the compost field, well designed drip system, and low-till gardens model environmentally savvy practices appropriate to Harper students’ futures.

How can a garden become farm to fork? A long term goal of the Harper garden is to become Food Safe Certified, so that food from the garden can be served in the school cafeteria. This is not an easy process. Rules are strict. Garden managers are working with the district food service to try to get there. But in the meantime, students are free to come to the garden and taste what they see. All they are asked to do is respond with “yay” or “yuck”. Students are always eager to do so. A school district food truck, suited with a commercial kitchen, is under construction. This truck might make it possible for students in DJUSD schools to cook and eat produce from their school gardens.

In conclusion, the Harper garden may be behind the school, but it is far from an isolated project. As this article asserts, the Harper garden and Tree Harper serve its school with varied educational opportunities and provide produce for other schools as well. Simultaneously, they are supported by businesses, nonprofits, and by volunteers from many sources. In addition, the Harper garden links itself consciously to career education by growing foods important to California’s food industries. The garden demonstrates how to grow strawberries, a three billion dollar industry in California, as well as tomatoes and sunflowers, crops which represent Yolo County. Harper also connects its students to UC Davis through intern programs. This makes students aware that they too can study agricultural science, business, and more.

Kids biting sun-warmed strawberries from the garden may well be tasting their future career. Such is the power of school gardens.


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