Growing a Garden and Community
Mar 29, 2012 11:40AM
● By Anonymous
Susan Myers, principal at Annapolis Elementary, had been ready for this type of project for years. She’d long been interested in green schools and outdoor education. “I don’t know if children today appreciate their environment as much as they should; maybe they don’t have the resources to do that. They’re in a city where there isn’t too much green. I wanted to bring an outdoor environment to the students.”
Within months, children were starting seeds in their classrooms and helping spread compost in newly built raised beds. Between October and March, community groups and government agencies had partnered with Annapolis Elementary School. Local businesses donated materials, a church donated funds for a water cistern, and countless parents, teachers, and children put in hours of hard labor. What inspired such an outpouring of community support? And how did an inchoate notion evolve so quickly, turning a lifeless cracked blacktop into a bright plot filled with herbs, fruit, vegetables, and flowers? Like most gardens, it all began in the cold wet days of early spring.
Heather Macintosh organized one of the first work parties in March, tapping her friends who were also parents of fifth graders to help. The group built garden beds and trellises, and moved a mountain of topsoil by wheelbarrow through rain, snow, and hail one Saturday afternoon. All the volunteers were covered with mud and utterly exhausted by the end of the day; then they realized they weren’t finished. “Most of us came back the next day with our kids, and we found more kids to help, too,” remembered Heather. The group spent five more hours working in the cold and wet weather on Sunday. Looking back on the community spirit that sustained all those people in the awful weather, it is clear to her why the group stuck with it. “We were seeing things taking shape. It was fun seeing a bed being hammered together, then filled, then leveled, and finally we’d put a sign on the end that said ‘third grade.’ It was so satisfying! I’d do it all again.”
In late April, students, teachers, parents, and community members gathered on the blacktop for the Annapolis Elementary School Garden Dedication Ceremony. Local luminaries spoke and celebrated the new garden, including Superintendent Kevin Maxwell, President of the Board of Education Patricia Nalley, and City Councilman Chris Trumbauer.
Joel Bunker spoke last, addressing the two hundred or so children sitting on the blacktop in a quiet voice.
“Do you remember who planted this garden?”
A little boy in the pre-kindergarten class sat very still, his skinny arms akimbo and his big eyes fixed on Joel. After a long pause, he managed to whisper, “me.”
Then Miss Burns, a kindergarten teacher, released butterflies that her class had recently watched emerge from their chrysalises into the garden. With each butterfly that made its way from the netted cage, the children jumped up and down, clapping and yelling triumphantly.
Annapolis Elementary parents and teachers, and gardeners from the Grow Annapolis community garden on Compromise Street (just a few feet away from Annapolis Elementary School), pitched in to help water and weed during the hot summer months. Occasionally, other visitors came to help.
In July, a group of rising ninth graders from the Summer Bridge program at Annapolis High School opted to spend a day working in the garden. Bunker spoke with the group, explaining what the garden was about, what they’d be doing, and finally passing out shovels and gloves.
The group ranged from kids with considerable experience gardening, like 14-year-old Luz, who confidently tore an invasive vine from a garden fence (she used to help her grandmother tend flowers in Mexico), to kids who had never spent time digging in the dirt, like 13-year-old Kaniya, who screamed upon sight of a bug and leapt out of the raised bed she had been considering weeding.
Many of these students had positive gardening experiences with their grandparents. Anne Heiser Buzelli, of the Anne Arundel County Health Department, has been involved with the project from the beginning, and thinks the school garden is evidence that the tradition is re-emerging: families are returning to gardening and patronizing farmer’s markets to save money, eat more nutritious food, and feel more connected to each other and their neighbors. “Gardening used to be the norm, and its coming back around. I think Anne Arundel County is going to benefit tremendously from this local food movement…it’s all really falling together.”
One morning in October, at one of the first garden work parties of the year for volunteer parents, a lone woman was kneeling by a garden path, pulling weeds. Bobbijo Clore has three children at Annapolis Elementary and is the head of the PTA garden committee for the 2011–12 school year. She didn’t have much help that day, but it wasn’t dampening her spirits. “Even though parents and teachers helped, over the summer the garden got so jungly. Then with Hurricane Irene, and all that rain…? It’s been hard to keep up.”
Clore thinks the garden needs to be scaled down in order to become more manageable for the school. Like many first gardens, this one may have been overly ambitious. But as she points out gourds growing in a neighboring bed, it’s clear that the garden is a source of happiness and pride. There will be enough for each classroom to make a birdhouse gourd this fall. The herbs are looking bountiful, and rainbow chard is brilliant in the autumn sunshine.
Whether this project’s stakeholders are most passionate about health, the environment, outdoor education, beautifying and improving the school, or simply building community in downtown Annapolis, all of them feel pretty good about the garden’s first growing season.
GROWING INTO THE FUTURE
Joel Bunker concedes that there is a lot to learn in a pilot program, but overall the garden—especially because of the many community partners involved—has been a great success. Sue Myers agrees. Her goal is to encourage a sense of ownership amongst the students during the garden’s second growing season; to that end, children will be researching vegetables, the local climate, and what should be planted and when in our area. Each classroom will choose an item that they want to plant this spring, starting seedlings indoors just as they did last year. “I want to be sure students choose and plant what they want—not what we decide they’ll do,” says Myers. The County Health Department will continue their support as well, helping with classroom resources, as well as with color-themed fruit and vegetable tasting events in the school cafeteria. Clore and other parents from the PTA have volunteered to help with ongoing garden activities.
Various PTA members from other schools have approached Annapolis Elementary PTA members and teachers, wondering how their school can grow a garden, too. Grow Annapolis and the Health Department are working with some of them, making plans for the future. Heather Macintosh surmised that “it’s not impossible to think every public school in Annapolis could have a garden.”
Yet the unique garden at Annapolis Elementary School grew from certain people who valued local food, health, the environment, outdoor education, and maybe most importantly, fostering strong community relationships. A principal with a background in agriculture, a PTA president with a passion for children’s health, a community gardens nonprofit led by a man with a clear sense of mission (whose flagship garden was just steps away), a nutritionist at the Health Department who happens to grow a vegetable garden with her five year old every year at home, and countless dedicated others came together to make this pilot garden a success.
Here’s hoping more local schools are at the ready with their own unique mix of the right people, right place, and right time as well, so that even more fruit, vegetables, and children might flourish in the spring.