Gardens are outdoor classrooms, a chance to learn about nutrition

By Casey Hans
AAPSNews Service

Tucked behind Burns Park Elementary School is a sunny spot that was a paved playground, but now is filled with activity of a different sort as students, parents and teachers dig in to create the school’s first garden project.

Take a peek around the corner.

Burns Park student teacher Lauren Yoder shows a student how to measure the soil temperature as part of a lesson in the school's new garden. A grant from the AAPS Educatiional Foundation is helping to purchase compost and fencing materials for the plot.

Instead of jumping rope and playing catch, students are working, playing and learning in piles of compost. They are planting seeds, mulching paths and learning about weather and gardening.

Instructing in the Burns Park School Garden on a sunny spring afternoon are parents Lynda Norton and Emily Hastie as well as Burns Park student teacher Lauren Yoder. The trio has set up learning stations, with students rotating between digging trenches and moving mulch and compost, planting pea plants and seeds and either journaling or painting hand-made signs for garden crops.

The garden plot is a huge 50 feet by 100 feet and was created when the school underwent renovations and a building addition on the south side as part of the district’s voter-approved Bond and Sinking Fund, leaving a beautiful, flat area with southern exposure.

The Burns Park community got to work last fall. “There were a few people interested in (creating) a garden,” said Norton, who co-chairs the garden effort with Hastie. “It was perfect timing, a perfect location.”

“I would love to see every school have a garden,” Hastie added.

Some 30 people participated in the planning process; about a dozen have been actively involved starting the garden this year. Students planted strawberries and herbs last fall and are working in the garden this spring planting peas, salad greens and vegetables and learning about weather patterns and healthy eating.

Norton said Burns Park parents have been generous with donations of money, plants, mulch, trailers and their time to help the project. Ann Arbor’s Downtown Home and Garden store donated many tools, a wheelbarrow and other needed items for students need to get to work.

“This dark soil here is excellent compost … it has great food in it for the plants,” Hastie told a group of second-graders who were getting ready to move buckets loaded with compost to prepare a planting bed.

Burns Park students move mulch to prepare beds for planting salad vegetables.

Hastie and Norton, PTO president and master gardener, are devoting their time to teaching students the basics of gardening as part of the all-school project. With much input from parents and teachers, Norton has developed a plan for the garden, which includes sections for each grade where students can plant, harvest and learn.

The project has received grant funding from the PTO Golden Apple as well as a recent award from the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation, which has allowed them to order several truckloads of compost, some mulch and install a fence around the garden’s perimeter.

Hastie said teaching about good food and healthy eating is a goal of the garden and she shared the Burns Park School Garden project mission: “The BP school garden will be an outdoor classroom that teaches students about the source of food, promotes good nutritional food choices, fosters a love of nature and creates rich educational experiences for years to come.”

Burns Park teacher Faith Chen recently brought her second graders to the garden on a beautiful spring day, where they planted both pea seedlings that were started in the classroom as well as pea seeds; they will compare the growth patterns of the two plants as the season progresses. Chen said her students are learning about life cycles and have learned about trees and plants and are starting a unit on butterflies – which all ties in neatly to the school garden.

Kindergarteners will plan a sunflower “house” in one corner of the garden and first-graders have created bean tepees. Older students are planting corn, lettuce, kohlrabi, broccoli, and carrots. “We’ll be able to harvest them in June and make a big salad before you head off to middle school,” Hastie told fifth-graders who were planting lettuce seeds.

An overall centerpiece to the garden will be a pergola on which perennial grape vines will be trained, Norton said.

Students are invited out twice a week to work in the garden and organizers said students can volunteer time on Thursdays during lunch hour to help keep the garden shipshape.

Not only are students learning, but adults are, as well. Although she is a master gardener, Norton said “I’ve never done much vegetable gardening, so I’m learning.” And Hastie has “always wanted to garden, so this is great for me.”

Parent and Burns Park PTO President Lynda Norton helps students plant some lettuce seeds in the school's new garden.

Another Ann Arbor school garden project at Northside Elementary School also was funded this spring through AAPSEF grant. Kindergarten teachers Winnie Chang and Jan Smith said work is just getting under way on the garden to get compost delivered and start work so that planting can begin the first week of May.

The 20- by 23-foot garden is being organized by an interested group of Northside parents.

They plan to start involving younger students, eventually including the entire school once they get going.  The Educational Foundation grant will be used for plants, compost, seeds, trowels and “everything we would need to do this garden,” Chang said.

“We’re also doing some extra planting too, so we can sell some things and help the garden sustain itself,” Smith said, with perhaps herbs and annuals.

Chang said a Northside parent is setting up a blog Web page where photos and discussion about the garden can occur. Also special at Northside site is a greenhouse that has been on site for many years, allowing organizers to store plants before they go in the ground.

Casey Hans edits this newsletter for The Ann Arbor Public Schools. E-mail her or call her at 734-994-2090 (internal ext. 51228.)

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