First, a seed is planted.
“This started in the principal’s office, because as you know, the principal’s office is not a bad place to be. It’s a good place to come,” said Walnut Creek Elementary School Principal Jaime Bizal at a dedication event Sept. 1.
“I had a second grade student come in and say ‘Mrs. Bizal, I think we really need a school garden!’ And he proceeded to tell me all of the ways that we could benefit from a school garden. ‘We could learn about life cycles and food chains, and pick vegetables and herbs, and maybe cook with them, too.’
“He had all of these wonderful ideas. He was very persuasive. I think his teacher had been working with him on persuasive writing. His name is Chance Baber. So I said to him ‘Chance, we do need a garden. I think that is a great idea.’”
Little did he know, she continued, Walnut Creek had already written a grant application to the Captain Planet Foundation for a learning garden. Yes, that Captain Planet, the eco-warrior hero of Ted Turner’s TBS network in the early 1990s.
“As luck would have it, the very next day, we found that we were selected to become the first and only school in the state of Nebraska to receive a grant from Project Learning Garden,” Bizal said.
Not just the only school in Nebraska, but Walnut Creek Elementary is one of only 535 schools in the nation to receive the $3,000 grant, said Ashley Rouse, Director of Project Learning for the Captain Planet Foundation.
“It’s about turning school yards into outdoor learning laboratories,” Rouse said.
The foundation said the Project Learning Garden program provides a context for multidisciplinary learning, ranging from nutrition and science to social studies, math and language arts. One of the project’s chief sponsors nationally is Dole Packaged Foods, while Fareway Stores is the primary local sponsor.
Held before more than 20 third graders and dignitaries, Wednesday’s event at Walnut Creek was both Project Learning Garden’s dedication and a chance to harvest the bounty. Upon receiving the grant last spring, it was all hands in the dirt. The fourth-grade class used math skills to survey land, find a flat area and measure so lawn mowers could easily navigate between the five raised beds.
The second and fifth graders did the heavy lifting and spreading of fresh soil. Third grade was responsible for planting all the seeds and seedlings, with an assist from the kindergartners who raised their own pumpkin plants. Finally, the first graders were tasked with watering the new plantings, while grade six created a food preparation cart.
“Research shows if kids get exposed to healthy foods, and know where there foods come from at an early age, they remain healthier and move those habits forward,” said Marty Ordman, spokesperson for Dole Packaged Foods.
After last minute herb planting and some picking, Ordman, Rouse and some of the kids in Jennifer Carey’s third grade class prepared salads made from their garden. The reaction was overall positive, though Carey said her class had been prepared for the experiment.
“It’s okay to try it, and if you don’t like it, you can try it again later,” she said.
Bizal said though they had planned many different interdisciplinary activities, “the greatest things that came out of this were things we didn’t anticipate. Like leadership skills and imagination and getting kids excited about the natural world.”
Wildlife had taken to the garden, making it a “magical place” with a new school bunny favoring the pumpkins, and a field mouse cozy under the rosemary. Just that day, a cricket-club formed because, well, crickets were discovered.
The garden has become something much greater than its agricultural parts, Bizal said.
“All kinds of wonderful things are growing. One of the things, like these stalks, we didn’t remember planting. We thought maybe it was corn. So we did some research, and figured out ‘that’s not corn.’ So, then we decided that we were going to tell the kindergartners they were bean stalks, see if we could get them to climb them to the top and find the giant,” she said.
Though the tall tale might spark a kindergartner’s imagination, Chance, 8, was not fooled for a minute. He knew this plant from a train ride through the Henry Doorly Zoo during summer camp.
“So this corn is actually exotic corn, it’s like a showcase corn. So it’s corn that actually doesn’t grow corn. Just the stalk and top,” he explained.
Chance would very much like to be studying animals or explaining the natural world for his career.
“I love anything that has to do with nature. I like growing things. Be a great science project when you’re looking up the life cycle of things as a kindergartner …” his voice trailed off upon being informed of a newly discovered praying mantis in the dill.
Chance stood with pride on Sept. 1, but really, everyone in Carey’s class was. Dirty faces could not cover grins. Even in down moments, the garden will be a healing place.
Jennifer Storm, Walnut Creek’s counselor, said she brings upset students to the garden to find a moment of calm and smell the herbs. Literally, smelling herbs to regulate and control a child’s breathing, helping them relax.
“Every child is a part of this garden in a small way,” Storm said.