These learning gardens are helping urban schools grow young gardeners

By Sandra Barrera | | Daily News

While walking her grandchildren to Iva Meairs Elementary one day, Gladys Elliott saw a teacher and some students weeding what had been the school vegetable garden.

She offered to help.

Five or so years later, and Elliott – the kids call her “Miss Nana” – has transformed and expanded this large plot into a considerable garden, filling it with succulents, flowers, vegetables, fruits and herbs with the help of teachers and students from this low-income neighborhood in Garden Grove.

“Now it’s getting to be more like a farm,” she said, with a chuckle. “It’s so neat to watch the kids pick peas right off the vines and eat them.”

Meairs Elementary, which is trying to crowdfund $478 through to extend its garden, is one of a growing number of schools nationwide to embrace the benefits that garden-based learning has on kids, from promoting nutrition to bringing classroom lessons to life through hands-on activities.

And it’s on campuses like Meairs, whose student population doesn’t always have the chance to get out and explore green space, where these gardens are needed the most.

“Kids who don’t have access to green spaces can get that nature immersion in a garden at school,” said Beth Saunders, a spokesperson for the nonprofit “Being out in nature can have such a calming effect, even within a high school courtyard” like the one in which she stood.

Saunders was recently part of an entourage that converged on Rosemead High School to present it with a $3,000 Budding Botanist Grant for teaching students about environmental sustainability and biodiversity through its after-school garden club called the Best of Thymes. The club plans to use the grant, sponsored by the Klorane Botanical Foundation, to build a “Wisdom of Weeds” garden, growing dandelions, purslane and other so-called weeds in a controlled area for students to study and sample.

Everything grown at Rosemead High goes into dishes prepared by the culinary arts students.

“Dandelions, which taste like arugula, can be cut at the base and the roots will compost into the ground,” said Joseph Vasquez, the English teacher who advises Best of Thymes, the club he started about six years ago after reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan with his class.

He explained that the compost then feeds the microbes, which then loosen up the soil.

“So all this hard soil could be combated by growing dandelions,” he said, trying to explain the building of soil to a group of students hacking at the hardpacked clay with shovels.

The boys were attempting to dig out some privet shrubs to make way for a new garden, one of several on this mostly paved campus filled with California native plants, herbs, vegetables and fruit trees.

Across the courtyard, students hand-watered mulched garden beds bursting with peppery nasturtium, artichokes, tomatoes, Swiss chard, sweet strawberries and corn.

“My mom is an active gardener in our household, so I’ve grown up around plants,” said one of those students, Elizabeth Chan-Diaz, 18. “But this club has taught me a lot about different techniques for keeping water in the soil, like using cardboard to line the ground and then adding mulch to the top. We get a lot of roaches, worms and all sorts of bugs that are pretty gross but helpful to the soil.”

These lessons are overseen by Eco Urban Gardens, one of several local and national non-profits that partner with Southern California schools.

The organization provides Rosemead High students with the tools they need and the know-how, including companion gardening, organic pest management and how-to collect seeds for next year’s crop.

“The ultimate goal is to create leadership where the kids are running the program and teaching the next generation of students,” said Elizabeth Christy, program manager of Eco Urban Gardens, which focuses on schools in the San Gabriel Valley. “We want to pass the torch and create a self-sustaining program that doesn’t need such a constant infusion of money.”

But for a garden to be successful, it also takes volunteers.

Elliott, who has lived near Meairs Elementary for about 40 years, saw her two daughters and three granddaughters pass through the school’s halls. At 65, the retired preschool teacher felt compelled to give back.

Never mind that she isn’t much of a gardener.

Together with teachers, she walks the kids through the plant life cycle. They sprout the seed, plant and care for the seedling until its time to harvest the produce, which students get to take home to share with their families.

The kids learn how to compost. They test the soil and – in the case of the hydroponic system – water, adjusting the nutrients.

“It’s been a learning process for all of us,” she said. “When we started our crops were terrible. now we have tomatoes coming out of our ears.”