Garden Party

Garden Party
Posted on 11/28/2017
Garden Party“Eat your vegetables” has never been an easy sale with most children. But it might just work if they grow the produce themselves.

That’s the idea behind gardens — chock-full with vegetables — at three Nacogdoches Independent School District campuses where students are tending to their fields at Thomas J. Rusk, Fredonia and Carpenter elementary schools.

The program includes collaboration from a number of parties. The effort receives assistance and aid from Texas A&M Agrilife Extension services as well as Stephen F. Austin State University’s gardening program along with volunteers such as Jim and Kerry Lemon, who played a role in getting a garden started at Thomas J. Rusk in the first place.

At Carpenter, teacher Michael Moore coordinates the garden that sits just to the south of the main campus building. Moore has been at Carpenter five years after growing up in California and attending college in Portland, Ore.

Moore recognizes “the power of experiential learning and what a better way to bring education to life than with hands-on learning lessons in the garden.”

At Carpenter last month, students were growing a fall harvest of kale, broccoli, cabbage, basil, thyme, oregano, rhubarb, radishes, carrots and pumpkins. Later in the school year, after returning to class in January, the club will plant spring crops.

There’s plenty of interest in the club at Carpenter.

“During car duty in the afternoons, I get asked all the time, ‘I want garden club to be today,’” Moore said.

The club and activities surrounding the garden gives students “freedom to explore,” Moore said.

For Moore, it’s also a bit of a family affair. He receives assistance from his wife, Jocelyn, who’s an assistant education coordinator with Stephen F. Austin State University.

Curriculum for the garden projects is designed with the state’s public schools in mind by the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service.

“It’s a very engaging program,” said Nacogdoches County extension agent and 4-H coordinator Claudann Jones.

The program’s curriculum is closely aligned with TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), standards that guide public schools from kindergarten through grade 12. That allows teachers to use the program to teach key components of science, math and other subjects without sacrificing vital classroom time, Jones said.

But there’s more to it than that, Jones says.

“The goal is to get them to eat more vegetables,” she said. 

Students that put in time to grow vegetables at the school gardens will likely take the time to at least try what they’ve grown, Jones said. That’s all part of the program’s name: Learn, Grow, Eat & Go!

The Agrilife Extension has poured money into the gardens - $1,500 for each site with the possibility of accessing more grants of up to $700 come January. The money’s used to pay for material used in the gardens, Jones said.

“This partnership helps our school districts because [Texas A&M] can fund this,” Jones said.

Her goal, Jones says, is to “reach within 15 years every child in our school systems in Nacogdoches County. That includes all of Nacogdoches ISD as well as the outlying districts.

At Carpenter last month, some students were applying mulch (a combination of leaves and pine needles) while others used plastic cups with holes in the bottom to water plants. Still others were carefully removing weeds from around plants that at the time were just beginning to poke through the soil.

At Thomas J. Rusk a few weeks ago, students were asked what was present at their gardens a few weeks ago. “Just dirt,” they answered in unison, their breath visible in the early morning chill. “What’s a better word than dirt?” Kerry Lemon asked. “Soil!” they proclaimed in unison.

One group is preparing to clear weeds but first begins to check plants for small worms that have eaten holes in some of the leaves. Other students handle chickens, brought just for the morning, while another group sits with Lemon and learns about the geography of food, such as the fact pumpkins are a product of North America.

Kerry and her husband Jim got involved with a gardening project three years ago at TJR through Resilient Nacogdoches, an organization that promotes resilience and community.

“We just decided we would adopt TJR,” Kerry said.

Other community members volunteer at Thomas J. Rusk, Kerry said, especially from Austin Heights Baptist Church.

“I believe strongly in getting kids out into the natural world,” Lemon said. “This is a great way for that to happen.”

And it’s not exclusive to elementary students. Cindy Pruett, a teacher at Nacogdoches High School who operates Appleby Community Farms along with her husband (“It’s definitely given me an advantaged,” she said), organized the Organic Living club at NHS.

“My agenda was to have school gardens,” she said.

With help from others, including her husband who brought a tractor to the school, the group built eight raised beds on the east side of the campus near the intersection of Appleby Sand Road and Loop 224. That got going more than a year ago, but the club has slowed and Pruett is keeping up the gardens herself for now.

“I’m hopeful the club can resurface in the springs,” Pruett said. “Our goal is to have the whole field filled with vegetables.”