Beads of sweat gather on 8-year-old John Brown’s brow as he squints against the sun’s glare. Brown looks more like a wise, experienced farmer than a third-grader, standing with one foot rested on the spade of his shovel and sharing gardening tips.
“Horse poop makes things grow,” he explains in a serious tone. “It’s called manure.”
Brown is the target audience for a new community gardening initiative in Louisville, started among smaller groups and now expanding into the school system. There is a growing interest among teachers in school gardening, which has led more schools in the Louisville area to join the Kentucky School Garden Network — an association of educators and environmental activists who are trying to teach young people about gardening and local eating. There are currently 70 gardens in Jefferson County, but advocates hope to bring a garden to every school in the commonwealth and eventually incorporate the gardens into curriculums.
The gardens vary dramatically. Some schools have huge spaces — and funds — for botanical gardens complete with ponds and streams powered by solar energy, while others may only have a few empty raised beds. The areas accommodating the gardens vary just as much, from some of the more affluent neighborhoods in the East End to some of the lower-income neighborhoods downtown.
The latter is home to the garden of Bates Memorial Baptist Church, where John Brown moves his manure. Beyond a row of shotgun houses and public housing, the garden is tucked away behind St. Peter Claver Community Center — across the street from Meyzeek Middle School — like a hidden oasis in the Smoketown neighborhood, which is ideal for this kind of rejuvenation: 72 percent of children in Smoketown live in poverty and 32 percent never graduate high school.
But these statistics don’t seem apparent as the children tend to their plentiful garden. They work together to shovel mulch, sneak snap peas and chase butterflies with nets through the crops of corn and bunches of vegetables. They’ve learned to respect the land and probably know more about vegetables than most adults.
“Students find a sense of purpose and ownership,” says Rachel Labus, a sixth-grade teacher at Meyzeek. “They take charge of it. There’s a real sense of dedication. They’ll claim the plants, name them. It’s their plant.”
In a child’s world where fruit is usually consumed in roll-up or pop-tart form, school gardens have been proven to encourage healthier eating habits.
“We have lost the knowledge of where food comes from,” says John Delautre, head of St. Francis School in Goshen. “Many don’t know the difference between fresh, good stuff and crap. It’s a deceptively important cause.”
Aside from the nutritional benefits, school gardening offers a unique form of educational engagement. Students with access to gardens show an increase in self-understanding and ability to work in groups, tend to enjoy learning and show improved attitudes toward education.
“Young people discover their deeper humanity,” says Claude Stevens, education director at Bernheim Research Forest. “[Gardening] is the best way to create citizenship and learn how to work together. There’s all this talk about how we are divorced from nature, but we can reconnect. The real produce is the relationships you build.”
Teachers have stumbled upon many obstacles in their mission to promote — and educate — healthier kids.
Take third-grade teacher Fife Wicks. Her class planted cattails in a swampy valley at Jeffersontown Elementary, only to have them destroyed by a lawnmower. The students re-planted several times. Every time the kids hear the ominous roar of a lawnmower, they exclaim “Mowers!” with horror and anxiously dart outside to alert the unsuspecting landscaper.
Laura Fitzgerald managed to grow cotton on her school’s grounds, only to later discover that cotton makes ample bedding for rats.
“It was this big,” she says with wide eyes, spreading her hands about two feet apart.
Some teachers find it difficult to incorporate gardening into their regular curriculums, but Delautre insists the resources are there. He suggests incorporating the role of corn in South American culture or teaching about the potato famine in Ireland. Some teachers allow time to write in journals in the garden.
One public high school started an impressive garden with a greenhouse and even raised $6,000 for more additions. But the support from the district wasn’t there. The garden was bulldozed and the money appropriated. Now the same school is trying again — 12 years later.
“We want a garden in every school in the commonwealth,” says David Wicks, founder of the JCPS Environment Education Center. “But we need legislative support.”
Visit www.kyschoolgardens.org for more info.