A New Project for the New School Year
by Kathy Schwartz
As the students head back to school and classrooms begin a new year of educating, the fifth grade teachers at South Adams Elementary School will have more than the usual studies to plan. Included in the curriculum for this coming year is the creation of a school garden, to be located on the eastern side of the school.
A school garden was the idea of an avid gardener in Berne, Indiana, who also happens to be raising an incoming fifth grader. Heather Emerson, a Berne Garden Club member and amateur urban gardener, wants to instill in children the passion, as well as the urgency, of having a garden.
“My philosophy is that we should teach kids how to grow food,” Heather explains. “I think that one of the most important skills you can learn is to feed yourself. Kids need to see the connection between things that are growing and things that are consumed—the cycle of life. They need to see the process.”
Heather had the idea. She shared her idea with one friend, and then another friend, who spoke with teachers at the school about the possibility of having a school garden.
“We had a meeting just before school was out,” remembers Heather. The enthusiasm in the room was infectious. The discussion centered around how the garden could be used as a lab for concepts and principles discussed in the classroom.
“Basically, what we decided to do was two raised beds to start with, and we will have the kids maintain them.” Heather continues, “We are going to make them so you can put a cover on them. It will be a mini greenhouse. They can start things earlier that way.”
Heather adds, “I guess I’m kind of in charge of it. I am not a teacher, but there are so many life skills that you learn when you raise a garden.
“I have benefited from it a lot—learning patience, planning, and problem solving, to name a few.”
Heather points out, “The weather is basically controlling and dictating your activities for the day, but there is always something to be done in a garden. There’s always something you can be planning for in the future, too.”
Plans for the garden are in the process of being finalized, but so far, they include a pumpkin patch for the special needs class. Preparations will be made this fall, and planting will be done next spring. Students will harvest pumpkins in the fall of 2018.
“We were talking about planting some things really early like peas, kale, spinach and lettuce,” says Heather. “Kids could see it grow and eat it.”
Heather is also looking ahead to where this project may lead.
“Eventually, my hope—and one of the teachers hopes, as well, that this becomes large enough so the food could be incorporated into the cafeteria. Schools are doing this all over the place.”
With a twinkle in her eye, Heather says, “I think it is going to catch on! We’ll need a bigger plan, and what we have will become part of it.”
Heather had initially hoped to use the former elementary school lot at the corner of U.S. Highway 27 and State Road 218 into public gardens that would draw people into Berne from Ouabache State Park and the Limberlost State Historic Site.
“I thought if it was owned by the school that the kids could get involved in planning, maintaining, and maybe even the vocational classes could build a greenhouse and a shed for the tools. Get them involved.”
Heather continues, “I don’t know how realistic that is. It would be something that would grow over time and would need community involvement to maintain it. It would be constantly growing.”
But Heather is realistic.
“You start out small,” she says, “and see where it goes.”
Following next spring’s planting, the raised beds at South Adams will need maintenance during the summer months. Heather plans to arrange weeding and watering the way the Berne Garden Club does with its flowerbeds.
“If everyone that has expressed interest signs up for one week of maintenance in the gardens, then we have this covered,” she says with confidence.
If visitors to the gardens are expecting traditional-style rows and open spaces, they will be surprised. Heather’s style of gardening is purposeful chaos, or a layered approach to gardening—the “lasagna” method. She is fairly new to growing food and comes into it without having any traditional experience.
“I don’t mind weeding, but I don’t want to spend all my time weeding,” Heather adds. “So, the way that I grow stuff is close together, and there are layers. I use no chemicals and do companion planting.”
An example of companion planting is putting onions and roses together. The onions help keep aphids away and also make the roses especially fragrant. Another benefit of the layer method is that very few weeds grow in the bed. When one plant has been harvested or dies, another plant is put in its place.
Heather’s own back yard is filled with a variety of garden beds that are a visual sample of her philosophies. She hopes to pass along what she has learned to future generations.
This fall, Heather’s simple idea will become a reality, starting with two simple beds in a school yard.