Learning and Growing

In order to write this month’s column, I stayed away from my computer for as long as possible. Instead, I took myself to the school and community garden at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. …


In order to write this month’s column, I stayed away from my computer for as long as possible. Instead, I took myself to the school and community garden at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School on Camp Street, wandered around, sat down on a bench and thought about my recent conversation with East Sider Kate Lacouture.

Owner of Green Circle Design, where she serves private clients as a landscape architect, Kate has channeled her skills into working with community members as they plan and grow gardens in locations ranging from the Adult Correctional Institute (ACI) to the East Side’s Sessions Street Community Garden (SSCG). Kate collaborated on school gardens at International Charter School in Pawtucket and Nathan Bishop Middle School, where her own kids are students. She is also building a garden with South Providence’s Mary E. Fogarty Elementary School and works with King on its garden. The garden was created when King’s faculty and Parent-Teacher Organization raised funds and galvanized community energy to build a vegetable garden on school property. Everyone involved responded well to research demonstrating that school gardens have a beneficial effect on both academic achievement and the development of healthy attitudes toward vegetables. After several years of leaving a fledgling garden in the spring and returning to an unmanageable jungle in the fall, King engaged Kate as a garden coordinator to implement a hybrid garden that would serve both community members and the school. King’s garden has developed into a hybrid school garden and community garden, in which community members rent individual plots and grow what they want while sharing supplies, learning opportunities and upkeep tasks. This solved not only the summertime garden problem but also provided gardening space for some community members who were languishing on the SSCG waiting list.

Part of Kate’s role is to make sure that students and teachers are able to be involved with their school gardens in meaningful ways that make the best use of the intersection of school and garden growing schedules. For example, in the springtime at the International Charter School and at King, first graders plant a salsa garden with tomatillos, serrano peppers, cilantro and onions. “When they come back in second grade,” Kate says, “They harvest from their plots and make tomatillo salsa. It’s quick – an hour from the start of the harvest to eating the salsa with chips at a harvest party, and it took just one hour in the spring to plant everything. It’s not a lot of time but it’s amazingly meaningful to the students. They feel a sense of ownership because they have planted that food, and they’re willing to eat what they grow.”

Schools can also use gardens to study ecosystems. The school garden at Nathan Bishop Middle School, which is located along the school’s Elmgrove Avenue side, is a butterfly garden designed to attract pollinators. It’s tied to the science curriculum and helps students learn about classification of genus and species, seed dispersal and other concepts. Though the Nathan Bishop garden isn’t designed as a community garden, there’s plenty of need for community participation. Additionally, at school gardens all over the East Side community participation is welcome and valued.

This hybrid model of a school-community garden also offers a way for community members to connect with their local schools. Schools are tremendously complex places, difficult to understand from the outside. School involvement and support from everyone, whether or not we happen to be in the thick of it with our own school-aged children, helps our communities as a whole. At King and at other such gardens, community members support student enrichment from planting and harvesting food by being present in the summer to keep the garden going. This small act can make all the difference to a school community, and for some of the community gardeners, it’s an entry into a school’s rhythms and needs. A school-community hybrid garden allows for just the right amount of adjacency that can break down barriers and tie a school more securely into the life of its neighborhood.

If you want to be involved in a school garden, feel free to email me and I’ll help you get connected.