By Nicole Zimmerman, School Garden Network; edited by livinggreen.

Cooking from the garden!

Cooking from the garden!

In October 2009, the Harmony Union School District’s School Garden, shared by Harmony Elementary and Salmon Creek Middle School, received one of five honorable mentions for the California School Garden of the Year Award. Offered by the California School Garden Network, the award recognizes leaders and innovators in California instructional school gardens.  In honor of the honorable mention, the following article was adapted from the West County Gazette, where it originally appeared in Fall 2008.

At Harmony Elementary in Occidental, nine kindergartners march in single file to an empty garden patch. Laurel Anderson, the outdoor education coordinator, demonstrates how to dig in and “chop up” the dirt. “We want to loosen up the soil,” she explains to the children. With spading forks almost as tall as they are, the children work eagerly. “We’ll keep our tools low with the pointy side down,” Laurel gently reminds them when they’re easily distracted by a hummingbird or a worm. “Not over your shoulder!” one six year-old adds.

Just before winter, the garden is an array of rich hues. Green gourds hang from an archway past the garden gate. Magenta stalks of flowering amaranth droop above calendula and calliopsis as golden as the autumn sun. Tangled branches form a nest of shade above sculpted cob benches where students sometimes gather for their lessons. Once a week, with the help of classroom teachers, assistants and volunteers, Laurel teaches Kindergarten through 5th grade students in this outdoor classroom. The kids learn important skills, study science lessons and create habitats for butterflies and other wildlife to flourish.

The kindergartners sprinkle handfuls of seeds from a pail. Bell beans, cowpeas and vetch will form a cover crop of nutrients over the winter months, when the garden classes cease until spring. While this group plants seeds, another is saving them. At long tables they shake feathery amaranth over sifters, catching their tiny, almost-black seeds in bowls. A third group cracks walnuts with mortar and pestle. “Walnuts are really good for our bodies,” their teacher tells them. Outside the straw bale kitchen the kids later sit with cupped hands, filling their “bowls” with the walnuts and popcorn a fourth group has popped.

To teach young children about nutrition in a fun way, Laurel shows them how to “eat from the rainbow” by using color to associate certain foods with healthy body parts. Green foods are good for the heart, orange helps the eyes and purple foods aide the brain. While these young students get a comprehensive introduction to all that gardens provide, Salmon Creek’s older students consider greater questions like what food is in season, and why it’s important to support family farmers.

Harmony School garden w/ strawbale kitchen in background.

Harmony School garden with strawbale kitchen in background.

Skills-based nutrition education called “Nourishing Choices” is integrated from Kindergarten through 8th grade. A Wellness Committee is actively engaged in transforming the school lunch program to include more local, seasonal, organic produce with weekly garden-based “Homegrown Lunches”. And now, with a grant and mentoring from the The School Garden Network of Sonoma County, the school offers a salad bar that includes daily organic baked potatoes and organic greens from the school’s production beds. 

Like agrarian societies throughout the world, celebrating the harvest through the enjoyment of eating together is an important community experience, one often lost on today’s youth in an era of “convenient” packaged foods. Topping the list of Laurel’s educational goals is to get kids excited about growing their own fruits and vegetables, experiencing the full cycle of life from planting to harvest to compost. She also wants them to experience how delicious it is to eat the foods they’ve grown. “When they ask their parents for rainbow chard or sautéed kale,” Laurel says, she tastes success.

Nicole Zimmerman served on the Board of Directors of the School Garden Network for one year and served as the interim chair of the Outreach/Marketing committee.