This fall, I started teaching a gardening class at my kids’ elementary school. Thanks to the wave of urban farming and FoodCorps members and sites like Gardenista, this sounds much more hipster and locavore than it actually is.
Mention the words school garden, and people seem to envision a type of plant-based Nirvana for children, where vegetables spill over raised bed borders, friendly chickens cluck while being patted by smiling children and an array of kids hold big metal colanders of freshly harvested goodness — all set to feed their peers, who will cheerfully demolish zucchini fritters and beet-based pancakes.
This is not what my school garden is like.
My school garden is a 25-foot by 65-foot rectangle of overturned earth that the do-it-all Craig King plowed up for me earlier this summer in the middle of a grassy field adjoining the school. Currently, it’s surrounded by a droopy electric fence. And within? Within we have a series of beaten-down bare-earth pathways and mounds of dirt, sparsely adorned, at the moment, with turnip and chard and cabbage seedlings.
It also has four zinnia flowers, which receive an inordinate amount of praise by the 80 or so kids I see every Thursday morning, and a diminished pile of mulch donated by Andy Hall and Jerry Gordon, my absolute favorite Water Valley electric department people. The children like the mulch less than the zinnias because fire ants have taken up residence in it.
I’m two months into teaching kids about gardening and, so far, all we’ve actually produced is a small pile of pumpkins and enough basil for every kid to take a bite. I’m going to blame the dirt (terrible! But I’m working on making it better!) and the weather (I sure am tired of dragging the sprinkler around — has it forgotten how to rain?) and definitely not myself (I have an enthusiastic thumb, but it may in fact be black).
Fortunately, I have an easy-to-please crowd. I love my Thursday mornings with the elementary kids of Water Valley. Judging by the hugs and amazing thank-you notes I get, they enjoy them too. We talk about nutrition and plant seeds and daffodil bulbs and, then, we usually play Red Light Green Light and do jumping jacks while hollering out the names of our favorite vegetables. It’s chaotic, ridiculous and a lot of fun.
What I enjoy less is the adult input about my gardening class.
“Are you going to feed the school with what you are growing?”
Hmmm. Feed 600 children with one medium-sized gardening plot, tended intermittently by me, a full-time working mom, and a rotating cast of 40-at-a-time school children?
“I know a great place to get cow manure! All you have to do is—” and here I stop listening. Because, I already know what I have to do. If you’d like the school garden to have cow manure, please bring it some.
“You should plant fruit trees and bushes!” I was actually listening to this guy, because this sounds like a good idea, and he happens to be someone with serious gardening credentials and a father to boot. Then, he said, “Bomb-proof things like blueberries and figs.”
I have blueberry bushes and fig trees at my house. They ripen in June and late July, respectively. Being a mother of two, I’m eminently aware that children are not, in fact, at school during those months. Instead, they are reading comic books at the store with me, complaining about being bored before I give them each a dollar to get ice cream at Turnage Drug Store and tell them to be bored somewhere else on Main Street.
As for chickens, I’ve heard tales about chickens that enjoy being petted by people. I’ve had chickens for close to a decade now, and that has not been my experience. My chickens enjoy dropped food scraps, wiggling worms and making dust bath areas for themselves (generally next to tender, delicate, newly planted things). They have shown absolutely no interest in being petted by children, much to my kids’ friends’ disappointment. Plus, did I mention I teach 40 kids at a time? Forty kids — plus a small vulnerable live animal — just seems like it could go terribly wrong.
So! The Water Valley School Garden welcomes donations of seeds, rotted manure and any easy-to-grow fruiting vines, trees and shrubs that ripen between August and May. Seeds and bulbs can be mailed to 301 N. Main St, Water Valley, MS 38965; truckloads of any soil improvements will be accepted only if delivered and shoveled out adjacent to the garden itself. And, please, don’t bring us any chickens.