Getting to the root of kid-friendly gardens in the South Bay
- Written byKara Mickelson
We often hear the phrase “It takes a village.” In this case the village includes a determined, business-savvy mother, willing community partners and a garden. And they’re joining together to raise vibrant, healthy children.
It’s easy to call Diana Heffernan-Schrader a “force of nature.” She launched a successful school garden program in a neglected weed patch of an enclosed dirt lot at her daughter’s school in 2010. Six years later the thriving Palos Verdes School Garden (PVSG) program serves 11 schools and collaborates and consults with Rolling Hills Prep, PVPUSD Food Services for middle and high schools, as well as neighboring schools in the South Bay and the Greater Los Angeles area.
PVSG partnered with the nonprofit Sustainable Palos Verdes in 2011. According to Diana, “The initial vision was to create a garden program in every PVPUSD school with a rich, engagement-based curriculum tied to state standards.”
The program is funded at each school via the PTA/booster program, private donation, school site fund and grants. The turnkey edible education program includes pre-designed curriculum, materials, a garden educator and maintenance, as well as volunteer outreach (essential to the program’s sustainability) and funding resources.
Aside from some basic structure, each school garden is unique and has its own special vibe. The gardens are bursting with color and life. Rows of beautifully designed boxes for flourishing wildflowers, herbs, bountiful vegetables and beneficial insects make up the active outdoor learning space.
The garden program is rich with symbolism. There are so many parallels to life and learning and nurturing of children that can be discovered in the garden. As the “father of modern horticulture” Liberty Hyde Bailey states, “A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.”
It’s evident after a day in the garden that there is dedication, overwhelming commitment and passion to help support and nurture a special learning place that inspires so much goodness in a world that could, frankly, use more. The “roots” of the program run deep into the community that supports it, and the seeds are sown into beautiful flourishing gardens … or, if you follow the metaphor, into vibrant future generations.
The curriculum supports state standards and is created with input and collaboration by the entire PVSG team, led by education director, Patti Cacos, and inspired by the edible schoolyard model—garden, kitchen, administration—all with district support and approval.
Students visit the garden five times a year by grade level (pre-K through fifth-graders) for a 30-minute lesson in their outdoor garden classroom. An artfully created chalkboard lesson summary is reviewed, followed by an interactive lecture, garden journaling, seasonal garden planning (two times a year), garden activity, and seasonal tasting and recipe lessons.
Kids may learn to make vinaigrette from a recipe and a salad with ingredients all harvested from the garden. It’s play with a purpose, in that the lessons are not only about vegetables and herbs—there is also some solid building of independence.
Lessons weave in art, math, science, history, social science and focus on literacy. A lesson may touch on early colonial settlers and the influence on Native Americans, referencing plants and meals of that period. Or how the Spanish missionaries settled into Southern and Central California, with a focus on agriculture and food.
Many lessons include art in activities such as vegetable stamping, garden collages, painting signs and copying an artistically rendered chalkboard lesson summary. Measurement of soil pH, proper spacing of plants, using tools to measure ingredients, reading thermometers and weather instruments, learning about compost/decomposition, vegetable families and parts of a plant are included in the instruction.
The children learn to respect nature and living things and get a chance to expand their palate. They learn about bugs, such as pollinators, and worms that help support the garden.
They might sample honey made from flowers grown in the garden or taste produce and herbs. They may learn to make salsa like an astronaut or create an herbal tea and learn about some of the medicinal properties of herbs.
Watching the kids in the garden, you see play and joy and real happiness and wonderment in their eyes. The simple excitement of spotting a couple of snails; the silly pleasure of climbing a tree (supervised, of course); harvesting apples and fresh fruit in vintage buckets; and basically kids just being kids, unplugged and engaged with the surroundings, are all wonderful sights.
The kids are inquisitive, always wanting to learn. Who wants to peel a carrot? “Me, me!” All hands go up with enthusiasm and smiles.
Salad greens are washed in the farm table sinks. Everything is tended to with care and detail. Carrots peeled; herbs picked; radishes, berries, stone fruits all tossed in a salad and served with a vinaigrette made by the kids.
Diane shares that the kids always praise the garden and can’t wait to get out and play—unaware that their play is also about learning, growing and expanding their knowledge of food, nutrition and self-sufficiency. Some kids try things they have never tasted. They decide whether or not they like it, but exploration and willingness to sample is obvious.
The sense of curiosity, fascination and excitement is real. The learning is natural and subtle, and the mood is most definitely joyful!
For more on the Palos Verdes School Garden program, food lunch initiative programs, edible education and edible restaurant gardens, or to become a community or restaurant partner, visit pvschoolgardens.org