School Gardening

Home Living teacher at Capitol Middle School, Nell Patterson, discusses an edible hibiscus plant. (Credit: Mark Clements)
Home Living teacher at Capitol Middle School, Nell Patterson, discusses an edible hibiscus plant. (Credit: Mark Clements)

By Mark Clements and Hayleigh Navarre | LSU Students

In a small courtyard at Capitol Middle School in Baton Rouge lies one of the students' favorite spots on campus.

It isn't the playground, the gym, or the cafeteria, but rather the school's self-run garden.

Lined with a variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs, Capitol Middle's glowing garden provides a getaway from the monotony of the classroom, but offers the students a learning opportunity of another kind.

"This is about bringing something not only to the school that can help promote a learning environment outside the classroom," said School Transformation Facilitator Jennifer Zeringue. "But it's also about trying to let them take some of that home and try to change some of the dietary usages in their households, as well as give them a skill. "

Ground for the garden was broken in October 2011 when several area organizations volunteered to get their hands dirty.

"It's just not the people who work at this school who care about the kids in this community, this is a total Baton Rouge effort," said Zeringue.

Louisiana Delta Service Corps member Grant Guidroz, helped design and install the garden with assistance from the school's City Year program volunteers and members of the neighboring Starhill Church.

Guidroz is serving with Slow Food Baton Rouge, an organization concerned with building and promoting the local food network throughout the city. "The main goal is for the garden to become self-sustaining," he says.

It seems to be well on its way. Crops include potatoes, corn, Swiss chard, squash, red okra, eggplant, cucumbers, blueberries, blackberries and green onions, to herbs of rosemary, mint, lavender, curry, thyme, dill, parsley and cilantro are all thriving.

Planted citrus and fig trees currently still are saplings, but will continue to grow with future seasons, along with the students' knowledge.

Now decorated with donated benches, arbors and greens galore, the vision the school had seven months ago is slowly coming to fruition.

"This was a blank slate," Zeringue said in the garden, "All of the in-ground beds were put in. They mixed soil, they mixed fertilizer, they learned about composting."

The garden and compost area were placed under the care of Home Living teacher Nell Patterson.

"They are not accustomed to seeing the food grow," Patterson said. "They need to see how food looks, not only on their plates."

Kaylen, a student at Capitol Middle School, said she saw a turnip for the first time in Patterson's class because of the garden. "A few weeks ago and we tasted a plant," she said smiling. "I didn't want to eat it at first, but it was good."

Another student, Gregory, said he enjoys learning about the gardening process, from planting the seeds to eating the final product. "It gives me the opportunity to raise something up."

Patterson takes her class out to the garden regularly, but the school is hoping to add courses to the curriculum next year that would work directly with the garden. Some of the school's other professors, particularly those in the math and science department, have already expressed interest in this possibility.

"It's still a learning process and they're still in class, but they're learning something different," Patterson said. "It would be wonderful not only having a garden at this school, but having it at every school."

Patterson isn't alone in her sentiments.

A similar idea grew on LSU agriculture students, who in turn planted the seed in the minds of University Recreation officials.

Laurie Braden, director of University Recreation, said both sides have exchanged several e-mails and held one meeting regarding the proposal, but added that the idea needs a more concrete base to truly bloom.

"We're certainly open to the idea," Braden said. "It's just an idea that really needs to get fleshed out in more detail than where we are right now."

Braden said the University will study what other departments, institutions and universities across the nation have done with similar projects, and use the results as a model for LSU's potential plot.

"One of the things that we have to do is we have to get more benchmarks about what other departments have done in this area," Braden said. "We have a huge interest in sustainability as a department … and certainly [the garden] fits in something that is a strategic value of our association in sustainability."