School gardens take root in Metro Detroit as labs for learning

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Holly — Looking for a spot to begin her elementary school's very first garden — a place where they could not just grow food but bring science to life — Patterson Elementary School teacher Kathy Marion settled on an area in full sun with room to spread out: smack dab in the middle of the playground.

They started small. Using cinder-blocks, they marked off the garden's perimeter. They lined it with simple fencing to keep animals away -- their school is in Holly after all and animals are part of the package -- and a grandparent built a gate. A facilities person asked Marion if she wanted raised garden beds but she said no.

"I wanted to start simple," she said.

Her simple garden — now at the start of its third season —has become a school-wide lab for learning. Teachers and students started growing plants from seed earlier this spring and they've even starting composting. They held their annual planting day last week, adding cucumber, tomato and pepper plants, along with sunflowers and marigolds.

"Every kid has a hand in that," said Marion.

Fifth grader Layla Zepp, left, 11, first grader Olivia Lombard, 6, and fourth grader Anakyn Padilla, 9, all of Holly, collect dirt samples in the school garden at Patterson Elementary in Holly.

Nationwide, school garden programs have grown substantially over the last decade and Metro Detroit is no exception. From rural places like Holly to more urban cities such as Ferndale, gardens take students into a different type of classroom, away from screens and into the soil, supporters say.

More: Detroit's Drew Farm takes farming to next level

Ferndale Public Schools now has gardens at each one of its five schools after winning learning garden grants from a nonprofit called Big Green Detroit last year. Detroit Public Schools Community School has garden beds at more than 80 of its schools and an entire farm, Drew Farm, part of which is used to help teach cognitively impaired students.

And Redford Union's Thurston High School just won a grant from a nonprofit this spring to start its own rain garden.

"There's magic in the garden," said Kristine Hahn, a Community Food Systems Educator with MSU Extension. "Good teachers take advantage of that and turn it into learning."

Patterson Elementary School kindergarten teacher Kathy Marion talks to the school's Garden Team. Marion started the school's garden three years ago.

Teachers and parent volunteers who've started school gardens say they're a great way to show kids in a very tangible way where their food comes from, encourage healthy eating and meet the state's Next Generation science standards for elementary students. They also create a sense of community.

When Patterson's garden in Holly had its harvest last year, Marion, a kindergarten teacher, said they used the tomatoes and zucchini they grew to make salsa and zucchini bread, which they gave away for donations. They raised $800, which they invested right back into the garden.

"Everyone was calling to ask, 'Where can I get the zucchini bread?'" said Principal Peggy Kraemer. 

Deb Hillebrand, a music teacher at Ferndale's Public Schools Upper Elementary, says gardening helps kids make the connection about where their food comes from.

Deb Hillebrand, a music teacher at Ferndale's Public Schools Upper Elementary who also leads the school's Garden Club, said gardens help bring science to life for children. 

"They go to the gas station and now they know where that package of sunflower seeds comes from," said Hillebrand.

Anijah Johnson, 10, is part of Hillebrand's Garden Club at Ferndale Upper Elementary School. Every week, she and a group of third grade students and a group of fourth-graders join Hillebrand to take turns watering, plucking weeds or tending to the school's three garden areas. Two are in coves between school wings and another is in the front. 

Johnson said she's learned things she didn't know about plants.

"We planted beans and they actually grow on a stem and I didn't know they grow on a stem," said Anijah.

Even teachers have learned a few things, said Hillebrand.

"There were some teachers that didn't realize potatoes grew underground," said Hillebrand.

First grader Wyatt Spence, 6, of Holly, collects a dirt sample in the school garden at Patterson Elementary in Holly.

By last fall, the Garden Club's hard work -- along with Hillebrand's and that of a group of  dedicated parent volunteers — paid off. They harvested a huge bounty of tomatoes, squash, potatoes, kale, tomatillos and corn. Hillebrand had the garden club shuck the corn, tipping the scales at 12 pounds (the Garden Club insisted she weigh it). She popped it up for the entire school to eat.

Amateo Deeb, 10, also a Garden Club member, still remembers the taste of that delicious popcorn.

"That was so good with no butter or salt," he said.

The power of gardens

Hahn with MSU Extension has been leading seminars on how to create and sustain school gardens since 2013. She said she has seen an increased interest in these seminars, which are mainly attended by teachers.

On a blustery day earlier this month at the Tollgate Farm and Education Center in Novi, dozens of attendees scribbled notes at long tables, learning about how school gardens can be incorporated into lessons year-round. They swapped ideas about hydroponic garden and hoop houses. Hoop houses are structures used to extend the growing season.

Hahn is a firm believer in the power of gardens at schools. She said what kids learn goes far beyond science; they can also be used for social studies, math, even English lessons.

"It's a living laboratory," said Hahn. "It changes. And it's energizing,"

For five years, Hahn tended a garden at a school on Detroit's east side. She remembers a student who struggled in the classroom but became a different child in the garden. He discovered worms -- and was obsessed.

"He went home and wrote an entire report about worms," she recalled.

Still, it takes funding, volunteers and time to start and sustain school gardens, experts say. And of all those challenges, teachers -- already pressured to meet an ever-growing list of requirements in the classroom -- may be the most crunched for time.

Nationally, a study by the University of Illinois at Chicago's Institute for Health Research and Policy found that school garden programs nationwide have grown substantially in the last seven years -- up from 11.4 percent of U.S. elementary schools with programs in 2006-2007 to 26.6 in 2012-2013. But they're less common in the Midwest and economically disadvantaged areas, the study found.

Groups such as the Big Green, a nonprofit started by Kimbal Musk, entrepreneur Elon Musk’s brother, are working to change that. The Big Green has installed Learning Gardens in 47 Metro Detroit schools and would like to install even more. They are accepting applications through June 21st for its next round of grants.

Children lack exposure

Ferndale's Upper Elementary had garden beds for years, but eventually they became neglected and overrun with weeds until a parent volunteer stepped in to help tend them. Last school year, Hillebrand, a longtime gardener herself, took the helm. 

She incorporates garden lessons wherever she can, even in her music classes. At a recent third-grade concert, students sang a song from children's musician Laurie Berkner called "One Seed." 

Last fall, Ferndale's Public Schools Upper Elementary's garden yielded dozens of vegetables, including tomatoes, squash, potatoes, tomatillos, and kale.

Hillebrand has gardening in her genes. Her grandmother was an avid rose gardener.

"Since I was little, I've gardened," she said.

But many students these days aren't exposed to gardening -- or even outside much. According to the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit, the average American child is said to spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and more than 7 hours a day in front of a screen.

Hillebrand says of the kids she works with, only about 30 percent have any experience with growing anything.

But the school's garden club is changing that. Tending to the garden beds in the front of their school on a recent sunny afternoon, Hillebrand inspected each one. There was kale that had self-seeded from last year and tiny dill growing.

"See how fuzzy they are?" asked Hillebrand, pointing to the small dill plants poking through the dark soil.

"I love fuzzy plants!" said Christian Ford, 10.

Serene Benhajali, 10, has loved being a part of garden club so much that she's already talked to her parents about starting her own garden at her house this year.

"We're going to plant lettuce and tomatoes," she said.

Gardens for every school

The Detroit Public Schools Community School District has one of the most extensive school garden programs not just in Metro Detroit but across the state.

Eighty-two of the district’s 106 school buildings have their own beds for vegetable and herb gardens this year. And plans are moving forward to make sure every school has its own beds, said Matt Hargis, the district’s Farm-to-School Program Supervisor.

Drew Farm, a two and a half-acre farm located at the Drew Transition Center on the city’s west side, meanwhile, hosts dozens of field trips each school year where kids tour the farm and get to see food actually being grown for their own school lunches. Inside a hoop house that students tour, radishes, bok choy, lettuce and kale are gorwing. 

Hargis said he also likes to grow unusual plants like rice and ginger to expose students to plants and foods they might be unfamiliar with.

“It’s a way to show kids different types of things,” said Hargis.

But each of the individual school garden beds have to be tended and that takes work.

Charlotte Gale is one of four Food Corps Americorps Service Members currently working in the district to teach kids about nutrition, garden education and “get them excited about food,” she said. 

Assigned to David L. Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School for nearly two years, she’s done everything from school-wide taste tests for students with various fruits and veggies (grapefruit did not go over well with the kindergartners) to science lessons. Soon, flower beds will be installed near the garden to teach students about pollinators.

Pointing out the lettuce, broccoli, collards and eggplant taking roots in Mackenzie’s six raised beds, Gale said there’s no question the garden has taken something that can be abstract and made it tangible.

“When they (students) can see it go from a seed to an actual plant is pretty magical,” said Gale.

Trial and error

Back at Patterson, Marion, along with parent volunteer Betty Watson, who has two kids at the school, says getting their garden to take root has been a learning process for everyone.

"This was our first year growing from seed," said Watson, who has been a key helper for Marion. "We're learning. It's been a lot of trial and error."

To grow the seeds they started, they have three small greenhouses not far from the school's lobby, funded by a grant. Grow lights coax the plants along. Members of the school's garden team -- with students from each grade -- mist the plants and their roots with water bottles.

They shifted to water bottles after they struggled with watering and initially washed the seeds out.

"When we first started, we over-watered them," said Olivia Irvin, 11, a fifth-grader.

"Really over-watered them," said Layla Zepp, another garden team member.

Still, seeing the seeds eventually take root has been really neat, said Zepp

"It's really cool watching every week to see how much bigger they get," she said.

And the garden is expanding. In May, Marion and a group of volunteers added an eight-foot section to the garden, to which they'll add corn and herbs. Throughout the summer, children from Holly Schools' Summer Blast program will tend to it along with parent volunteers and, of course, Marion.

"It has been a great learning experience for all of us," she said.

Twitter: @mfeighan