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Detroit-area school gardens bring science to life

From left, fifth grader Layla Zepp, 11, first grader Olivia Lombard, 6, and fourth grader Anakyn Padilla, 9, all of Holly, collect dirt samples in the school garden at Patterson Elementary in Holly, Mich. Students at Patterson Elementary School take soil samples for their garden near the playground with the help of kindergarten teacher Kathy Marion, of Waterford, and MSU Extension Educator Kristine Hahn, also of Waterford, Thursday morning, May 16, 2019. (Todd McInturf/Detroit News via AP)

HOLLY– Looking for a spot to begin her elementary school’s very first garden — a place where they could not just grow food but bring science to life — Patterson Elementary School teacher Kathy Marion settled on an area in full sun with room to spread out: smack dab in the middle of the playground.

They started small. Using cinder-blocks, they marked off the garden’s perimeter. They lined it with simple fencing to keep animals away — their school is in Holly after all and animals are part of the package — and a grandparent built a gate. A facilities person asked Marion if she wanted raised garden beds but she said no.

“I wanted to start simple,” she said.

Her simple garden — now at the start of its third season — has become a school-wide lab for learning. Teachers and students started growing plants from seed earlier this spring and they’ve even starting composting. They held their annual planting day last month, adding cucumber, tomato and pepper plants, along with sunflowers and marigolds, the Detroit News reported.

“Every kid has a hand in that,” said Marion.

First grader Wyatt Spence, 6, of Holly, collects a dirt sample in the school garden at Patterson Elementary in Holly, Mich. Students at Patterson Elementary School take soil samples for their garden near the playground with the help of kindergarten teacher Kathy Marion, of Waterford, and MSU Extension Educator Kristine Hahn, also of Waterford, Thursday morning, May 16, 2019. (Todd McInturf/Detroit News via AP)

Nationwide, school garden programs have grown substantially over the last decade and Metro Detroit is no exception. From rural places like Holly to more urban cities such as Ferndale, gardens take students into a different type of classroom, away from screens and into the soil, supporters say.

Ferndale Public Schools now has gardens at each one of its five schools after winning learning garden grants from a nonprofit called Big Green Detroit last year. Detroit Public Schools Community School has garden beds at more than 80 of its schools and an entire farm, Drew Farm, part of which is used to help teach cognitively impaired students.

And Redford Union’s Thurston High School just won a grant from a nonprofit this spring to start its own rain garden.

“There’s magic in the garden,” said Kristine Hahn, a Community Food Systems Educator with MSU Extension. “Good teachers take advantage of that and turn it into learning.”

Teachers and parent volunteers who’ve started school gardens say they’re a great way to show kids in a very tangible way where their food comes from, encourage healthy eating and meet the state’s Next Generation science standards for elementary students. They also create a sense of community.

When Patterson’s garden in Holly had its harvest last year, Marion, a kindergarten teacher, said they used the tomatoes and zucchini they grew to make salsa and zucchini bread, which they gave away for donations. They raised $800, which they invested right back into the garden.

“Everyone was calling to ask, ‘Where can I get the zucchini bread?'” said Principal Peggy Kraemer.

Deb Hillebrand, a music teacher at Ferndale’s Public Schools Upper Elementary who also leads the school’s Garden Club, said gardens help bring science to life for children.

“They go to the gas station and now they know where that package of sunflower seeds comes from,” said Hillebrand.

Anijah Johnson, 10, is part of Hillebrand’s Garden Club at Ferndale Upper Elementary School. Every week, she and a group of third grade students and a group of fourth-graders join Hillebrand to take turns watering, plucking weeds or tending to the school’s three garden areas. Two are in coves between school wings and another is in the front.

Johnson said she’s learned things she didn’t know about plants.

“We planted beans and they actually grow on a stem and I didn’t know they grow on a stem,” said Anijah.

Even teachers have learned a few things, said Hillebrand.

“There were some teachers that didn’t realize potatoes grew underground,” said Hillebrand.

By last fall, the Garden Club’s hard work — along with Hillebrand’s and that of a group of dedicated parent volunteers — paid off. They harvested a huge bounty of tomatoes, squash, potatoes, kale, tomatillos and corn. Hillebrand had the garden club shuck the corn, tipping the scales at 12 pounds (the Garden Club insisted she weigh it). She popped it up for the entire school to eat.

Amateo Deeb, 10, also a Garden Club member, still remembers the taste of that delicious popcorn.

“That was so good with no butter or salt,” he said.

Hahn with MSU Extension has been leading seminars on how to create and sustain school gardens since 2013. She said she has seen an increased interest in these seminars, which are mainly attended by teachers.

On a blustery day earlier this month at the Tollgate Farm and Education Center in Novi, dozens of attendees scribbled notes at long tables, learning about how school gardens can be incorporated into lessons year-round. They swapped ideas about hydroponic garden and hoop houses. Hoop houses are structures used to extend the growing season.

Hahn is a firm believer in the power of gardens at schools. She said what kids learn goes far beyond science; they can also be used for social studies, math and even English lessons.

“It’s a living laboratory,” said Hahn. “It changes. And it’s energizing,”

For five years, Hahn tended a garden at a school on Detroit’s east side. She remembers a student who struggled in the classroom but became a different child in the garden. He discovered worms — and was obsessed.

“He went home and wrote an entire report about worms,” she recalled.

Still, it takes funding, volunteers and time to start and sustain school gardens, experts say. And of all those challenges, teachers — already pressured to meet an ever-growing list of requirements in the classroom — may be the most crunched for time.

Nationally, a study by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Health Research and Policy found that school garden programs nationwide have grown substantially in the last seven years.