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North Elementary garden teaches kids valuable lessons, far beyond simple planting

A homeschool alumna and homeschooling my child, I haven’t been often in public schools. As a teenager, I occasionally went to take standardized tests, and as an adult to do volunteer work in schools. Beyond those, I rarely had a reason to go into any school.

Last week, I had a reason — I wanted to see and learn more about North Elementary School’s gardening program. Granted, I still didn’t spend much time in the school, but I got a tour of the outdoor space.

Elementary school students selling fresh produce and plants at the Morgantown Farmers Market caught my attention and pulled at my heart strings. When I bought a bag of fresh basil from the kids, they carefully measured out a fair portion of the herbs, took my cash and made change.

When I visited the school to see where they grow this produce, McKenna Moser, the AmeriCorps Outreach coordinator gave me a tour and told me about the program.

It started in 2011 with a high tunnel, devoted volunteers and a curriculum to incorporate the garden into the students’ regular studies.

McKenna told me that the program now runs with volunteer help, AmeriCorps and the LifeBridge program (through which they hire a garden manager) and help from Master Gardeners.

The school still has the original high tunnel, which has plenty of room for classes of children to gather around the raised beds.

The program has expanded to outdoor raised beds surrounding the school, and a little outdoor classroom, with grassy terraced seating facing a spot for a teacher to stand and lecture.

“Any time we can get a lesson plan involved with the garden, we do,” McKenna said. She pointed to a bed of rice, and recently harvested Chinese noodle beans that international class students planted and tended to.

Outside of specific projects, “we try to do a project once a week at least,” McKenna said, to bring classrooms of kids outside to interact with the plants.

A lot of science and math classes get involved in the garden. One class recently built a new raised bed, edged with stacked paving stones. They designed the bed (in the shape of a caterpillar), and had to calculate the space, how many stones it would take to complete their design and then build it themselves.

Teachers can also have planters in their classrooms, or just outside the windows, for regular observations. McKenna said many teachers have also opted to have vermicomposting bins in their rooms.

In addition, the school has incorporated a main composting area into the gardens.

One area is dedicated to a sensory garden. The plants in these beds were selected to stimulate a sense — to taste the raspberries, smell the lavender and feel the lambs ears, for example.

McKenna said “a lot of community involvement” makes the garden program possible. For example, 84 Lumber donates materials and Lowe’s provides plants and soil. Community members volunteer time every other week for “Weedy Wednesday” from 5-7 p.m. — they will meet in the gardens tomorrow, and anyone can roll up their sleeves and lend a hand.

The program gets some funding through small grants — one this year will pay for cold frames over some outdoor beds to extend the growing season. This will allow the students to participate in the winter farmers market for the first time.

Market sales funds go back into the garden, to pay for upgrades and repairs that grants don’t cover.

While I don’t have much experience in public schools, this seems like an outstanding asset for the education of our youth.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email