A Moveable Feast: the Rebirth of a School Garden
In the winter of 2014–2015, a handful of students and I began work on a school garden in an unused gravel-and-sand plot on the far side of our campus, between the teacher parking lot and the fence. Through the chilly months of the school year, we tested the soil, laid out a grid, and built and arranged six 8′ x 4′ raised beds with a small grant from our school’s non-profit organization. I bought the wood from a local lumber yard and the pea gravel and soil from a local supply yard. Friends and other supporters helped us, too: the Old Cloverdale Community Garden folks gave us a composting bin that they weren’t using, and a friend gave us rain barrel made from a Coca-Cola bottler’s citric acid container. The work was completed in the spring of 2015, and we planted our first crops, mostly Southern staples, which were ready for eating by the time we left for summer break. We were using my tools from home and carrying most of our water a hundred yards across the campus, from the nearest outdoor spigot, two watering cans at a time. Moreover, despite being a novice “farmer,” I was insistent that we would use no chemicals, neither fertilizers nor pesticides.
What followed in subsequent school years – 2015–2016, 2016–2017, and 2017–2018 – was a rollercoaster of lessons in the fields of natural science, psychology, sociology, economics, and fundraising. The year that the summery Alabama weather held at 90 degrees and bone-dry until Thanksgiving taught us that you can’t grow a fall crop when fall doesn’t come. Another winter with repeated deep-freezes and a few instances of snow in January, February, and March made us aware that farming even six small raised beds was a challenge. Accustomed to being able to flip a light switch or adjust a thermostat, my millennial students and I got a taste of how Nature doesn’t consult us before doing its thing. The students got see that there’s no app for pulling weeds or taking the sting out of an ant bite and that there’s no make-up work in farming. But we managed during those years to produce several successful crops, albeit in small quantities.
On top of one unfortunate fact of school-based urban agriculture – students aren’t at school during the summer – I’ve also learned some important lessons about being an educator, including that students can tend not to show up when it’s cold . . . or when it’s hot . . . or when it’s early . . . or when they might get dirty. Our school garden is an extracurricular, not a class, and not particularly well-resourced, so enthusiasm is harder to come by. However, each year’s small group was typically devoted, though numbers would dwindle during those weather-induced fallow periods. I also learned that I’m not a charismatic motivator. Students who appeared in my doorway and asked, “How do I join the school garden?” got my simple reply: “You show up. If you come out there, you’re in it. If you don’t, you’re not.” It’s not much of a sale pitch, but I’m more of a straight-talker than a shit-talker. There’s an old saying that “you’ve got to fish or cut bait”— I don’t need people who don’t show up. (I can also share that some of the one-time visitors to our garden came strolling up to be in the group shot for the yearbook. They got sent away.)
However, the greatest obstacles to overcome in operating a school garden, I’ve learned, are money and time. Our school garden never had a regular funding source and had always been a before- or after-school thing, so using my own resources, making asks of friends, and having students working outside of school hours has been the norm of this fledgling operation. But it has worked. I built a low-slung toolshed a few years ago from some wood that my father-in-law had stored under his sister’s house. A student who is now about to graduate brought a bunch of Mexican petunias and daylilies for us to plant along the fence line. The same friend who gave the rain barrel taught me how his grandfather planted strawberries in cinder blocks. We’ve learned new ideas and hacks from having little or nothing to work with. But, I will say, having some money sure would have been nice . . .
Last summer, I was hoping that we would be able to have a fifth year with the school garden. However, without funding, there were serious problems to be addressed. Notwithstanding that we had no money for seeds or seedlings and still no water hookup, the wood around the raised beds was rotting, and the soil inside of them was depleted. Over the summer, hornets had built a nest in the compost bin, and the toolshed had gotten termites. I didn’t how or whether to proceed. I’ve always resisted fundraisers – I tell students, “I didn’t start a garden to have a car wash.” – but it was looking like a choice between that and quitting.
Then, about two weeks into the school year, the choice was made for me, when one of the buildings on our school’s campus burned. The building, which was across the street from the garden, was a total loss, and school system officials declared that we would be moving the whole school to a new location. Having heard for years that our school may not stay in that location, I had started to calling our garden A Moveable Feast, partly in homage to the Ernest Hemingway book, but mainly because I had been designing everything to be moved like a touring theatrical set. In anticipation of a move, nothing was nailed down. The toolshed’s floor was built to allow a forklift to put it on a flatbed truck. Though they’d crumbled, the raised beds were designed to be dismantled and reassembled by pulling up the metal stakes, then removing and rejoining the L-brackets. The cinder-block strawberry planters could be picked up. Of course, the composting bin and rain barrel were easy.
Not one to tuck tail and run, I shifted my thinking to how the school garden program could be rebuilt at the new location. Once we got moved and settled, I set my eye on a 100′ x 150′ plot of land that I could see outside my classroom window, where this former elementary school’s playground equipment lay in wait for someone to come make use of it. I’m not interested in sliding or climbing, but I could see trellises for scuppernong vines and confederate jasmine. I could also see tracts of tilled earth with rows of green leafy crops. I’ve noted, as summer became fall and then winter, that full sunshine comes down unimpeded by trees as it travels each day from east to west. I made a point after rainstorms to walk the entire plot, stomping for water-logged spots and checking for poor drainage. Everything seems copacetic— this is my spot.
Through a nice combination of luck, effort, and support, three forces aligned to put the puzzle pieces in place. First, one of our school’s alumni, who now works for the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service offered help tilling up the ground and getting us re-started. Second, I secured a grant from Montgomery’s Sunrise Rotary group to run a water line to the new site. Third and finally, our principal allowed me to use part of the money from our school’s first-place finish at the Montgomery Education Foundation’s Brain Brawl. These developments meant that we would have two things that we never had at the old garden: money and water.
This month, a local plumbing contractor will cut in that water line, and over the holiday break, I went to local nursery and picked out plants for the landscaping: a bright-red firepower nandina, a yellow-leafed euonymus, a purple-blooming rosemary, and a pink-blossomed camellia. All colorful and all hearty through the cold months. (One other problem with a school garden in the South, is that the favorite plants – crepe myrtles, etc. – are mostly leafless when we’re there and most vibrant when we’re not.) We’re only in phase-one for the reborn Moveable Feast. The vegetable beds will come once those steps are complete.
Though I’m no farmer, and have no formal training in agriculture, my desire to start a school garden was two-fold. The impetus came when I once asked students, rhetorically I thought, where their food comes from, and they all replied, “The store.” I retorted, “No, before that.” A few faces contorted in confusion and said, “A truck?” Now completely dismayed, I inquired even more emphatically, “No, before that.” A scant few said, “A farm?” It occurred to me then that none of them had experience with bringing something to eat out of the dirt where they live. Which brings me to the second reason. As a person who grew up with a backyard garden plot, and who helped my father with yard work until I was old enough to do it myself, I like being outside. And though I wouldn’t change my chosen profession, it has me sitting inside at a desk, reading and grading, most of the day. Perhaps selfishly, having a school garden allows me to get away from a computer screen and out from under the electric lights to get some fresh air—and that’s something that everybody, young and old alike, could use more of.