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Posted on Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 5:58 a.m.

Taking root: Growing number of Ann Arbor elementary schools planting gardens

By Janet Miller

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.”


Josue Ventura

Fri, Jan 18, 2013 : 2 a.m.

I helped Ms. Barcelata build, plant, and care for the garden. I remember starting, we layed boxes on the grass for the snow to flatten, after winter we built a fence, shoveled dirt, and lots of stuff. It took a whole school year to complete the garden. I am so glad she came up with the idea. I remember being o excited. She was fifth grade teacher by the way. I am extremely proud with all the trouble she went through, and im proud with the work that the class did together. I am in the second to last picture. Haha i am going to help Ms. Barcelata with the garden every year.


Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 7:06 p.m.

GET CONNECTED : It is indeed very pleasing to know about this school activity and extend my congratulations to all the participants; the teachers, the students, the building principlas, and other community members. The energy that we expend as living organisms is constantly replenished by plants which use the mechanism called photosynthesis to trap Solar radiation and creatively transform the energy into new energy-yielding organic molecules. Creation is not a past event. We can experience the Magic of Creation in our daily lives by simply growing plants and obtain nourishment from this creative mechanism. Life is about the connection between energy-demanding molecules and the energy-yielding molecules.


Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 4:52 p.m.

I'm all for the gardens but how about cutting the lawn and weeds at these schools. They look like a shambles and sometimes like they are abandoned in summer. I know moneys tight but geez some of the properties look crap.


Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 4:19 p.m.

Great idea. Much more fun than reading about plants and vegetables out of a book. Question--who weeds, waters, prunes, and takes care of the gardens when school isn't in session? Volunteers for sure I realize--but i just would like to hear a bit about that part of the process. Like teachers, students, parents, and neighbors keeping in touch and staying engaged over the summer break.


Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 11:50 p.m.

At some schools, families sign up for one week of the summer. That week, they might come two or three times to water, weed, and pick anything that is ready. It's pretty easy to maintain and get families to volunteer.


Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 3:55 p.m.

Best idaea since the concept since playing sports, band, glee club or any other outside the classroom activities. Gardening can be a life long hobby. Talk about going green, it is all good.

Top Cat

Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 3:40 p.m.

Thankfully they are not growing asparagus. Children should learn at an early age that it is not fit for consumption by humans or raccoons.


Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 3:57 p.m.

I'll consume your portion of asparasgus.


Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 1:33 p.m.

Maybe the should have planted gardens as a history lesson discussing how agriculture is part of American heartland and how most homes had victory gardens during the wars and how a lot of homes had a garden up through the 70s.


Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 12:54 p.m.

I can see it coming already. The schools are going to ask for a garden tax.

Linda Peck

Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 12:33 p.m.

The children in K-1 at Honey Creek Community School tell me that they are expanding their garden next year. We enjoyed eating the lovely greens from the garden they planted this year.


Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 3:26 p.m.

They are also donating whatever is not eaten at summer camp to Food Gatherers!


Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 12:03 p.m.

Is it a "Pay to Plant" program?


Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 11:57 a.m.

Please check out the garden at Dicken-right in your neighborhood! Classes are still planting and it is the last week of school! Wonderful project lead by 2 parents.


Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 11:57 a.m.

Rudolph Steiner School has been doing this for more than 25 years, seeing it as an essential part of the children's education.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 11:23 a.m.

A wonderful initiative! If the schools someday added hoop houses, they could extend the growing season by six weeks at each end of the year and also increase the quantum of learning. Perhaps if they then partnered with a professional farmer more mentoring could occur?


Thu, Jun 14, 2012 : 2:08 a.m.

Eberwhite has looked into this and may be pursuing it.


Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 11:16 a.m.

I believe Bryant Elementary also has a garden going - excellent education for so many of the district's youngest students at this entirely k-2 school.

Wendy Correll

Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 10:45 a.m.

The Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation awarded Ms. Barcelata a $1,000 Great Idea Grant for the garden project at Pittsfield this year. Other schools awarded Great Idea Grants for gardens over the past four years include Northside Elementary, Burns Park Elementary, and the Ann Arbor Preschool and Family Center. Great ideas at work!


Wed, Jun 13, 2012 : 10:29 a.m.

Totally awesome. Hope we can get more schools involved with veggie gardens in the future.