Taking root: Growing number of Ann Arbor elementary schools planting gardens
Inspired by first lady Michelle Obama and used as an innovative way to introduce curriculum and healthy food to school children, elementary schools around Ann Arbor are sowing and expanding schoolyard gardens, from vegetable gardens to wildflower gardens to rain gardens.
At least 11 elementary schools in the Ann Arbor Public Schools district have vegetable gardens, said Elissa Trumbull, a founder of The Agrarian Adventure, an Ann Arbor nonprofit that promotes school gardens.
And the number is growing, she said, with new gardens planted this spring at Pittsfield and King elementary schools.
Pittsfield teacher Jenny Barcelata had a vision a year ago. "When everyone was outside for graduation, I had a vision of a huge garden,” she said. “I thought how lovely the field would look if it had a garden . I wanted to create an outdoor classroom.”
With help from Project Grow and the The Agrarian Adventure, it took a year’s worth of planning to make the vision real, Barcelata said. She marked off a sunny 35-foot-by-50-foot plot on the Richard Street side of the school. A hundred bags of dead leaves along with cardboard boxes were spread over the field to kill the grass.
Over the school year, students drafted landscape maps for the garden. They came up with two half-circles at the center of the garden along with access pathways
Then came the real work: “We moved 30 cubic yards of compost,” she said. When the weather warmed, her students planted seedlings, many coming from the Tappan Middle School greenhouse, a project of The Agrarian Adventure.
Some 1,700 seedlings were grown this spring for use in area school gardens, Trumbull said.
The Pittsfield PTO donated money and a local shopkeeper supplied garden tools. A volunteer made a strawberry pyramid. Another classroom built birdhouses. Art classes made clay signs to mark the vegetables. There’s a solar powered water fountain, wildflowers to attract butterflies, a birdbath and blueberry bushes and strawberry plants.
“It’s like an oasis,” Barcelata said.
And vegetables — especially ones that are easy to harvest — can be eaten raw and appeal to a young palate, such as cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas and peppers. But there’s also corn, watermelon, pumpkins, cucumbers, radishes and more. Neighbors, parents and Barcelata will water and weed throughout the summer
Barcelata isn’t worried about anyone raiding the garden. That’s what it’s there for, she said.
“I want everyone in the community to feel welcome," she said. "I want kids to come into the garden to pick tomatoes. I want them to go home and make a salad. I want to connect the garden to the community. I want them to take advantage of it.”
Vegetables aren’t the only things growing in Ann Arbor schoolyards.
Bach School parent Shannan Gibb-Randall organized planting two rain gardens, one at the school entrance on West Jefferson Street and the other on the Fifth Street side, next to the school. The gardens are filled with native plants: wild strawberries, Northeast and smooth asters, Joe-Pye weed, even swamp milkweed.
The idea is to catch rainwater that runs off the school roof to water the garden before it heads to Allen Creek, Gibb-Randall, a landscape architect, said.
But the gardens are also ripe with important lessons, she said. She has made classroom presentations at Bach on soil, watersheds and garden mapping. City compost along with school compost from leftover school lunches was used.
“That’s a really neat full-circle story to tell,” Gibb-Randall said. “It allows us to talk about why you can’t put plastic straws in the compost.”
Each school garden has its own personality according to the school’s needs and resources, Trumbull said. The Ann Arbor Preschool and Family Center, for instance, has raised garden beds that are handicap-accessible. Tappan, the only schoolyard garden at the secondary level, includes fruit trees and a passive solar greenhouse.
The Agrarian Adventure, Trumbull, is working to connect school gardeners so they can share information, resources, curriculum and funding sources. Funding the gardens can be a patchwork of small grants, private donations and in-kind support. Trumbull said she wants school gardens to become a staple resource for teachers, just like media centers.
While some teachers have already used the garden for lessons, including poetry readings, Barcelata hopes Pittsfield teachers next year will use the “Growing Minds” curriculum to connect the garden to the classroom. It integrates science, math and even writing.
The school garden movement is a natural outgrowth of the eating healthy and local movement, said Lynda Norton, a force behind the Burns Park Elementary School garden, which took root in 2009 and this week produced 30 pounds of radishes and 35 pounds of lettuce, used to make a giant school salad.
Inspiration also comes from Washington D.C. with Michelle Obama’s White House garden, Barcelata said. “People are just starting to realize that gardens bring people together. There could be a divided group of people, but a community garden brings people together. They are beautiful. They make people happy."
They also put healthy, organically grown food into the hands and mouths of schoolchildren, many who don’t have home gardens, Barcelata said.
“It’s about changing our habits and eating the way we’re supposed to be eating.”