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School gardens offer students the perfect opportunity to learn while getting dirty.

But officials say digging around the increasing number of pizza-, salsa- and butterfly-themed gardens that are sprouting up at schools around Madison is only one way plants and dirt can provide an education.

"There's learning that can happen in really rich ways beyond the growing, planting and harvesting," said Rachel Martin, who co-founded a school garden at Midvale Elementary School six years ago and is now the director of the sustainable schools program for Sustain Dane, an organization that works to incorporate sustainable programs in school districts, municipal governments, business and neighborhoods.

Students can do math by counting the number of zucchini on a vine or read a book next to a cluster of sunflowers. They also can observe seasonal changes, such as what it means for a plant to go to seed in the fall and drawing pictures of decaying tomato stalks in the winter.

"Planting and growing food ... is a very limited way to think about the ways gardens could provide education," Martin said.

She estimates the number of school gardens around Madison has increased from a dozen six years ago to now more than 30, and local organizers hope more teachers will embrace gardens as an extension of the classroom.

Mary Michaud, a parent who started the garden at Madison's Van Hise Elementary, now in its second season, said volunteers focused on growing vertical plants, such as sunflowers, for sensory reasons.

By just looking up, students who are accustomed to computer games and playgrounds start to recognize the environment around them, which broadens their learning, she said.

To help more schools incorporate outdoor learning into their daily activities, Michaud and other school garden advocates, teachers and parents formed in February the Grass Roots Outdoor Wonder, or GROW Coalition.

An immediate goal is to connect with schools interested in getting students learning outdoors, such as through a garden, and share resources on how to get started. Part of that will be finding ways to avoid multiple schools competing for the same small grants, which are the primary funding sources for school gardens.

Eventually, the group would like to pool its resources to pay someone who would travel around the Madison district, helping teachers conduct lessons related to gardening and that support a hands-on, integrated approach to learning, Michaud said. The goal is to pass on ways of living sustainably to future generations, she said. "Gardens are a big tool to do it."

Gardens can be a challenge

School garden organizers around Madison say running a garden is not without its challenges, and one of the biggest is getting teachers involved.

"Teachers just don't have the time," Michaud said. "And many don't have the training or the instructional support to do it."

As a result, many school gardens primarily are run by parent volunteers, who can be in short supply in schools with high poverty rates where parents don't usually have time for gardening.

Another challenge, which garden organizers at Glendale Elementary experience, is when the school has a large number of families who don't live within walking distance, which can make it hard for them to volunteer.

But Max Lubarsky, who has worked as an Americorp volunteer at Glendale and this fall will be an educational assistant, and Joe Muellenberg, youth nutrition educator with UW-Extension, have in the last two years revived the school garden. They hope it will attract more parent and teacher interest.

The two moved the garden from the back of the school where it often flooded to the front and built 11 raised beds, including three in the shape of pizza slices growing basil, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and cilantro.

Lubarsky said students participating in a Madison School & Community Recreation program do most of the work at the garden now, but incorporating it into curriculum is "definitely a goal for the future."

Teachers don't need to go out and dig in the garden; they can simply hold math class among the tomatoes to get students thinking about the environment and being outside, he said.

Michaud said the GROW Coalition also will help ensure schools like Glendale get the support they need to make a garden successful.

Different environment

Working in the garden also allows students to succeed in a different environment.

That's been evident at the Youth Grow Local Farm, formerly known as East High Farm, located on land adjacent to Madison's Kennedy Elementary.

For the past two years, Community GroundWorks — a nonprofit organization in Madison that works to connect people to nature and local food — has helped revive the garden. This fall, participation during the school year is expected to expand from kindergartners and first-graders using the garden to second- and third-graders as well.

During the summer, the garden is cared for by about 25 to 30 middle and high school students who, through the Goodman Community Center, are responsible for preparing the beds, planting seeds, watering, harvesting, spreading compost, installing trellises and washing, weighing and packing up food.

"Everything you see at the farm are the things the kids are doing," said Megan Cain, Youth Grow Local Farm manager with Community GroundWorks.


Mary Michaud, a parent who started the garden at Madison’s Van Hise Elementary — now in its second season — offers these tips for schools interested in starting a garden:

Start small. Two 4-foot by 8-foot raised beds with tomatoes, sunflowers and a few perennials are enough to get students interested. “It’s tangible, the kids love it and you’ve got something right away,” she said.

Recruit a core group of five to 10 volunteers. “You don’t need a ton of money, what you need is support from your principal, and community organizing, for the people to be involved to see this as community building, not solely as gardening,” she said.

Don’t count on funding from the school. Instead, secure between $500 and $1,000 in grants or donations to acquire plants and tools. The school’s parent teacher organization might be able to contribute.

Get students involved immediately so they feel connected to the garden. “Many kids have never eaten anything out of a garden,” she said. However, research shows children who grow their own food or try fresh food out of a garden are more likely to try other vegetables and demand them at home, she said.