One of the many ways we can celebrate Earth Month this year is by spreading love and appreciation for the earth to the next generation. School gardens are a powerful and increasingly popular way to do this. There are more than 5,000 school gardens in the United States, and programs like Whole Foods Market’s Whole Kids Foundation fund school gardens and the food they produce, from the garden to the cafeteria.
Since 2012, the US Department of Education has also awarded green ribbons to US schools for sustainable facilities, health practices, and effective environmental education. More than 400 schools have been recognized.
In Sarasota, Pine View School is part of the trend with its thriving sustainable school garden. The garden is run almost entirely by students and all the materials used in its development have been reused.
Pine View’s mother and former attorney Lesley Sachs has always had a green thumb, but wanted to take it to the next level by learning how to grow food and teaching students how to do the same.
“The garden has been here for a while, but it would thrive in the ebb and flow,” says Sachs. “When we took it on at the beginning of the school year, we started with plants that are easy to grow in Florida and its sandy, gritty soil, like tomatoes, peppers and okra. This gave us the confidence and motivation to keep growing. “
As Sachs and a group of Pine View seniors who founded the on-campus garden club saw the plants thriving, they turned to more complex issues, such as composting, making natural fertilizers, and planting more exotic plants.
I was invited to tour the garden on a sunny Tuesday morning, after Sachs had already set to work with a group of fourth-graders to make what she calls “compost tea,” a natural fertilizer made from worm casings, algae, and molasses and water. She pours the concoction on the plants once a week after mixing a large bucketful in the garden shed. The children took turns watering plants, pulling weeds, and harvesting the ripe produce.
Sachs sees and feels her sense of accomplishment and her pride.
“They love to bring home fruit and veg for their family to cook and eat,” she says. “Experiencing the process of growing food from start to finish gives them an appreciation for the land, for the food they get at grocery stores, and for the farmers who do the work every day.”
The garden also teaches sustainable practices to students. Everything you see in it has been repurposed. Leftovers from the school canteen (citrus peel, heads of lettuce, strawberries, etc.) are collected by the students and buried in the ground to enrich it with nutrients. This reduces the school’s food waste. The raised beds are made from reclaimed wood from old school picnic tables.
Even the irrigation system, which automatically sprays the plants a few times a week, was installed by local garden supervisor and chef Paul Mattison, owner of the Mattison’s restaurant group.
“We are so fortunate to have the help not only of the school but also of the community to keep this project going,” says Sachs. “We received a couple of grants, one of which was a new food forest in the back of the garden with olive, citrus and more banana trees.”
During my tour, organized by a group of sixth graders, the garden was in full swing. I was shown flowering aubergines, peppers, tomatoes, passion fruit trees and even cucumelons – a delicious hybrid of miniature melon and cucumber that I got to taste straight from the plant as no chemicals are used in the garden. There was also okra, lettuce stacked in hydroponic towers (an upright, space-saving growing system), banana trees surrounding a compost circle, and a variety of herbs and edible flowers.
The garden also features a desert-like succulent tower, small beehives for native bees to pollinate in, and compost bins for worms — basically “worm dwellings,” as one student called them, where red wriggler worms can live to enrich the soil . (While the students had no problem digging for them, I politely passed.)
“We do occasionally get pests, but we have a policy of not disturbing wildlife and nature visiting the garden, regardless of species,” explains Sachs. “This also teaches kids about all living things and the natural cycle of ecosystems respect and come up with new ideas to keep pests away, like using compost tea or chicken wire covering plants.”
Another method of pest control was explained to me by garden club senior and co-founder Connor Lafo. The secret? The natural smell of certain plants repels insects.
“We grow basil next to tomato plants because the smell of basil is a natural insect repellent,” says Lafo. “Other strong-smelling herbs are planted alongside leafy plants for the same reason. They also help each other grow by sharing soil nutrients.”
Another senior, Laura Gayer, added that some plants fix nitrogen, meaning they help balance levels of essential nitrogen in the soil and air when grown in the right conditions. The students learned this not only from Sachs, but also from a camp they attended last summer at the Suncoast Science Center’s Fab Lab, where they learned how to plant microforests.
“This camp gave us the inspiration to bring this garden back to life,” says senior Sahio Agarwal. “That and things growing here have given me a whole new appreciation for Florida’s landscape. I didn’t really like the look of Florida before, but now that I can recognize native trees and their functions, even just walking, I understand the beauty in it.”
Agarwal was so moved by the gardening experience that he plans to study environmental engineering when he attends college in the fall. Gayer and Lafo agreed they would take these growing skills into the next chapter of their lives, whether it be collecting for garden clubs on their college campus or growing their own gardens — albeit smaller ones, on dorm or apartment balconies.
“These kids really know their stuff,” says Sachs proudly. “They often help me tutor the younger students who come to class.”
Sachs teaches elementary, middle and high school children. When I was there, third graders were planting Everglade tomato seedlings that they had grown in science class. Sachs explained how to gently pull the roots out of the fixed circular position they form in the pot, allowing them to grow strongly into the soil.
The food forest portion of the garden is expected to be completed by next school year, when Sachs hopes to grow even more plants and find innovative new ways to make the garden even more sustainable. She wonders what the impact would be if every school in Sarasota County composted food waste and planted a garden.
As for Pine View’s lead gardeners, “we hope the garden will continue after we graduate,” says Gayer. “We like to think that everyone loves it as much as we do and that there are enough students who care.”
For more information about the Whole Kids Foundation or to start a garden at your school, click here.