Dozens of parents, students and staff members arrived at Washington Elementary School’s Green Day event on May 16 armed with shovels and hoes. They created a butterfly garden and added to the existing edible garden with confidence that opportunities for hands-on learning will flourish along with the plants.
“You can make so many lessons out of it,” said kindergarten teacher Ellen Urquiaga of the improved outdoor area that features a designated plot for each grade level. “It hits every curriculum somewhere.”
Ms. Urquiaga said the butterfly garden, with its 25 varieties of perennials and various native grasses, will provide an ideal outdoor classroom for her kindergarteners to explore butterfly life-cycles. The special habitat is a registered Monarch Waystation, designed to sustain the species during their annual migration.
The kindergarteners already take advantage of the gardens, Ms. Urquiaga said, to explore the plants and find geometric shapes occurring in nature. “Across every single grade level,” said parent volunteer Jenni Suvari, “there’s something you can go out and learn about science and math.”
Several enhancements were made to the school’s edible garden, including the addition of a “Three Sisters” garden that ties into the third-grade unit on Native Americans. According to Native American tradition, each vegetable – corn, beans and squash – represents a sister. The roots of the plants intermingle to support each other’s growth.
A pizza garden, shaped like an actual pizza and intended to grow common pizza ingredients such as oregano, basil, onions and tomatoes, was plotted for the fourth-graders. The spices and vegetables will be ready for the students to harvest and sample next fall.
Oliver Pacheco, a first-grader, worked intently on the edible garden. He had a previous opportunity to plant flowers and strawberries with his classmates on Earth Day, and said his favorite part of the gardening experience is “getting dirty.”
“It helps the earth,” Oliver said. “And we’re going to eat them later,” he added eagerly.
Aleca Sullivan, president of the Parent Teacher Organization, said prior to the school’s outdoor expansion, many Washington students had never experienced growing their own food.
“It’s pretty amazing how so many kids were proud of how they planted something,” Ms. Sullivan said.
Several volunteers cited the devoted care of Ruben Mendoza, Washington’s head custodian, as the secret ingredient to the success of the gardens. Mr. Mendoza, an enthusiastic Green Day participant, said he considers Washington his second home. He often walks to the school on weekends, just to check in on the gardens.
“Anything I do over here, I’ll do it with heart, regardless of pay,” said Mr. Mendoza, who has been employed at the school since 1991.
Washington parents secured funding for the landscaping projects through various outside grants.