Passing on the School Garden Baton

School gardens are in my blood. I’ve been continually involved in planning, planting, and caring for school gardens since 2004! Fifteen years! Wow, that is a long time! And, more remarkably, that span of time only involves two gardens!

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My first school garden involvement was at the elementary school where my boys attended their first six years of instruction. Due to the spacing of my three boys, I had a student in this school for 13 years! The garden was small but we used it as a “home base” for our garden club lessons.  Over the years, we had it certified as a Monarch Way Station (2006), planted a nearby maple tree, and even had a memorial stone placed for a much loved student who passed away.  It was the hub of over thirteen years of experiential student learning on nature and place. Countless lessons were taught on earthworms, vermi-composting, butterfly gardening, the monarch life cycle, plant life cycles, annuals and perennials, seed collecting, and more.  To make this even more memorable, high school students, some who were part of garden club in elementary school, and some who just wanted to be involved, came and helped with our lessons. This was service learning at its best! The high school students were admired by the younger students and, in turn, the older students gave back to their own school or school system. It was a win-win!

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Unfortunately, two years ago I resigned from managing this school garden – one that I had lovingly cared for and used to teach over 500 elementary students! It was like being a teacher with 38 kids per school year for 13 years! I am absolutely sure this garden and our group, Evergreen Garden Club, made an impact on those who were involved. I actually did a research study to share this information but still have to write it up! Some students attended all four years they were eligible to be part of the club from second through fifth grade. Some came and decided it was not “their thing.” But still, they tried it, and for that I am grateful. Most of my memories of this garden and the students at Evergreen are positive. One of my more cherished memories came at the end of my tenure when a third grader gave me a penny.

“This is for you,” he said as he placed it in my hand. “This is for the future, so you can make a difference, and have people stop spraying pesticides. You can change the world.”

I was speechless at his insight, and also, my impact!

But, for a lot of reasons, in the spring of 2017 I resigned. One of the reasons, alluded to in the student’s final words to me was that someone had sprayed pesticide in our Monarch Way Station. I was devastated, so I resigned. As I said, there were other reasons. I had not had a student of my own at this school for over five years. Many of the teachers I knew and loved had retired. Newer teachers looked at me oddly. Administration had changed three times in the thirteen years I was there. Unfortunately, he group and garden had run its course.

But, soon after I resigned, less than four months to be exact, I saw a position posted at another elementary school in another district. My position at Evergreen was voluntary – for 13 years – I put in many, many hours not only as the garden club teacher but also as a gardener – planting, weeding, and trying to cajole others to helping me. This position was paid – although, not much – as it was co-curricular. But, paid, none-the-less.  And, there were funds set aside yearly to help buy plants and things to maintain the garden. I had never experienced school based financial support for my previous school garden without a fundraiser or written grant.  And, there was a shack full of tools and equipment!

There were other differences too. The position was mainly to manage the gardens outside the school which were extensive. As I interviewed with the principal in the fall of 2017, I told her of my experience in founding the garden club at Evergreen. I wanted to do that again, I told her. And, so – just like the first principal I worked with at Evergreen – she let me!

Last year was exciting, as any new position is. I was able to do some presentations in the classrooms, and got all 465 students outside to plant in the school gardens with their classes. The gardens took time, but hard work paid off, and they looked lovely. But, for the most part parent volunteers were non-existent even with pleading to the school’s PTO. And, a business partnership also turned foul when they asked me to set up times for their employees (investment bankers) to work in the garden. The times were posted on Sign-up Genius and there was no response. Finally, after many attempts at following up, I received an email at the end of July that they were no longer interested in helping to maintain the garden over the summer.

With the help of some good friends (one of whom was one of the former principals at Evergreen) and my husband, as well as one of my sons, we managed the garden last summer. It looked nice. I have photos to prove it.

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My husband helping with the last of the school garden clean up today. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2019.

This school year started and the club grew from 5 members to 23 members! I guess it had gotten out that it was a “cool” after school activity once a month. But, I was finishing grad school, and never got into the classrooms this year. The timing never worked out. The gardens were planned around the theme of PEACE due to a beautiful Peace Pole that stood as the garden center piece. After some jostling due to rain, we were able to get most of the grade levels out to plant again this year. I think kindergarten and second grade missed their chance due to rain and being unable to reschedule.

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Giving a lesson in the garden. © C. Labuzzetta, 2019.

But, this spring I resigned due to taking on another job. Today, a month after completing the planting with students, my husband and I went over to tidy up. The new garden caretakers will start on July 1st, and I’ll be officially done with my second school garden. I wish them luck as there’s approximately 600-700 square feet of gardens that need to be cared for.  I know I will miss the students, and teaching, but weeding in high heat and humidity, such as we had today with definitely not be something I will pine over.

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Last Clean Up at the School Garden. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2019.

There is a moral to my story. With the explosion of school gardens, I urge all involved to be very careful in the planning and planting of your space.  The one question that always needs to be answered is, “Who will take care of it?” If you don’t know the answer or the responsibility rests solely on volunteers, or with one limited position, be very careful. Weeds grow faster than students, and taking care of them is far less satisfying!

My time with the second school garden I managed has come to an end.

It was fun while it lasted!

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