In the spring of 2013, a parent volunteer at West Riverside Elementary dropped a note in Connie Jo Gandy’s mailbox. Gandy lives just a block from the school, and the parent, Diana Martin, had always admired her yard.
Gandy has been gardening for many years, mingling vegetables and herbs into her landscaping, so when “Diana put a lovely note in my mailbox complimenting my garden and asking if I would be available to help in the school garden, I happily accepted and got to work,” she says.
The school garden has a long history—according to Gandy, there’s been a garden of one kind or another in the same space for at least 30 years—but its most recent incarnation has proven to be quite a success. Once Gandy got involved, she formed the West Riverside Garden Club and began applying for grants. “I developed an expansion plan that would almost double the planting space and provide a more permanent structure,” she says. A year ago, there were only four or five flimsy wooden beds. Now, the concrete block beds provide space for dozens of varieties of plants including beans, lettuce, watermelon, sunflowers, tomatoes, peppers and more.
Community and corporate support have been amazing, Gandy says. Vulcan Materials donated the blocks for the garden structure. “Grassroots Market, Cool Moose Restaurant, Lowe’s, Home Depot, and other local businesses and several individuals have all contributed to the Garden. We were also awarded a $2,000 Grant from Whole Kids Foundation.”
Students were involved in the garden from the beginning. Gandy and Martin began by doing a seed-saving project with the entire kindergarten. “We were able to bring those students full cycle with plant/seed identification and collection: drying the seeds planting, watering, and waiting,” Gandy says. “Then came the day of harvest – they were able to harvest baby lettuce to take home.” The women have also worked with teachers to develop lessons on composting and living soil exploration. One of their activities is called “It Starts With a Seed,” where groups race to correctly match seeds to their plants. “This is our outdoor science classroom, and teachers use the space as needed,” Gandy says. “There is usually some experiment in action going on.”
Students learn valuable information as they develop skills of scientific investigation, and sometimes teachers bring students to the garden for language arts assignments, using it as inspiration for poetry and storytelling.
The school’s art teacher will have students add mosaic mural art to decorate the garden this year. “The garden is a living, breathing space full of new life, and it’s always fun to go outside and see what’s new,” Gandy says. In addition, the garden program is embracing the school’s new dual language program, adding Spanish/English signage to the garden this fall to increase vocabulary.
The kids also get to enjoy the fruits of their labors. During Tasting Days, they try foods such as kale chips or pasta salad with pesto made from broccoli. They learn about seasonal eating and the garden gives them a new appreciation for the origins of their food. Some produce is also shared with garden club members, school families and staff.
It takes neighbors to help nourish a neighborhood school. The West Riverside Garden Club is open to everyone, says Gandy. They meet regularly at the school to work in the garden to support the students and teachers.
Those who want to get involved can email Gandy at WestRiversideGardenClub@gmail.com.