This story is part of a regular series, “Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools,’’ that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania’s public schools. For other stories in the series go to www.psea.org/learninglessons.
“When Lata Anantheswaran, a second-grade teacher in the Bellefonte Area School District, set out to create a garden for the students at Benner Elementary School in March 2017, she had no idea it would blossom into the powerful, community-wide program it’s become.
What started as a simple idea among teachers, boosted by a cash grant from Tractor Supply, has grown beyond the school grounds, spreading out to the surrounding Centre County community. Now students, their families, community volunteers, and local businesses all contribute to helping the garden grow.
“Fortunately, we got a lot of people involved,” Anantheswaran said. “We got a good master gardener. We got a lot of volunteers. We had parent support. We had the faculty and staff support. The students were super excited. As everybody knows, science is something that students just love.”
The garden allows the children of Benner to be involved in every step of the process, from planting to harvesting to a schoolwide salad bowl at the end of the year where each student gets to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.
A garden for all seasons
In its current form, the Benner Elementary garden consists of eight large beds that host all manner of edible flora throughout the year.
“Every grade level has one bed assigned,” Anantheswaran said. “They’re in charge of watering and taking care of that. Same thing with harvesting. So, they go outside as a class, during an assigned time, usually, and take care of it. They’re super excited about it.”
This spring the kids planted carrots, spinach, lettuce, and radishes, with tomatoes added a bit later.
“The springtime is perfect for this kind of project because everybody’s doing some kind of science – planting, talking about seeds, and all that kind of stuff in the classroom,” Anantheswaran said.
In the summer, students and families sign up to plant gourds and watermelons and to maintain the garden during summer break.
Anantheswaran was worried at first that they wouldn’t be able to find enough volunteers to keep it going through those long, hot months and have something to harvest when the kids came back in the fall.
Her fears turned out to be completely unfounded.
“It was a pleasant surprise that everyone was so excited for it and ready to do anything for it,” she said. “Already this year I’ve had students telling me, ‘You have to ask my mom and dad. They are willing to help out in the summer.’ We had an abundance of help.”
From seed to harvest
The cash grant the school received from Tractor Supply was enough to get a garden project started, but not on the scale they envisioned. So, they reached out to local community businesses and stores.
“Everyone was extremely generous to give their support in the way of cash, or even to just come and help out with their hours,” Anantheswaran said. “We got a lot of local organizations, and one of the groups from Penn State University came out to help us. This past week we also had students from the Central Pennsylvania Institute come for a workday, and they ended up helping us extend the garden.”
The CPI group helped them build two new vegetable garden beds and make three compost piles.
Last year, they also started a pollinator garden, set up with help from the proprietor of a local butterfly garden.
“When she came in the first time, she brought butterflies so every class could release a butterfly and could see the life cycle for a butterfly right there,” Anantheswaran said. “The kids were really excited.”
Sending up new shoots
Anantheswaran hopes the excitement generated by the school garden motivates the kids to start their own gardens at home, and plant something – anything – and feel good about it.
“Connection with nature is really important,” she said. “And they really love science. Especially the elementary school kids, they’re all about the worms and the soil. The growth, starting at the life cycle of the seed. Just taking it out to nature. I would hope that sticks with them, and they have a good learning experience from that.”
But fostering that excitement and fascination with nature doesn’t just fall to the kids.
“There’s a lot of support from faculty and staff. And of course, we can’t do it without the gardener, the volunteers, the summer garden families, and everybody locally. Everybody is just so generous about giving what we need. This has to be a team project. It is very important that everybody is on board, and you can’t do it without all these people. It’s all worth it. It’s all for the kids.”
Bellefonte Area EA member Lata Anantheswaran provides the following advice for creating a community garden at your school.
• Work with a team. Make sure you have gardeners, volunteers, parents, and administrators on board before you start. Then don’t be afraid to ask them for help.
• Commit to the project. You and your team will have to take time out of your school day to get this done. But if you’re passionate about it, the kids and other volunteers will be too.
• Reach out to the community. You might be surprised to find that many local businesses, neighbors, and others in the community will be eager to help and contribute supplies and time to get this project off the ground and keep it running smoothly.
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