By Kelsie McCrae
In the center courtyard of Frederick Douglass Elementary School lies a monstrous garden that has become not only a source of fresh produce, but of lessons for students and parents alike.
When the school opened in 2012, the courtyard had just a few raised garden beds, but it’s now an expansive garden that fills the quarter-acre space.
“We call it the heart of our school,” said kindergarten teacher Marykirk Cunningham, who also oversees the garden. “We have the kids say ‘our garden’ so they know it’s for everyone.”
It’s known as the Garden Lab. Aptly named, it’s considered just as much of a learning space as any of the classrooms that surround it. Students’ work begins the first week of the school year, as they create a plan for planting, maintaining, harvesting, cooking and even composting crops.
Students in each grade plant and care for their own raised bed, and their teachers use it as a teaching tool. Earlier this year, third-graders learned about Native American farming methods by planting squash and potatoes. Fourth-graders used what they had learned in science and history to grow cotton. Kindergarteners cared for milkweed plants to create a safe space for monarch butterflies.
Cunningham said students retain hands-on lessons best, and the Garden Lab has become the go-to spot for instructors teaching every subject area.
It also serves as a place where students can relax. Lavender, lamb’s ear and rosemary are just a few of the plants that make up a sensory garden where the school’s special education students can experience a wide range of soothing smells, textures and colors. It also includes rocks that double as seats perfect for quiet reading time.
“Some people say, ‘oh I don’t know if I can help. I don’t have a green thumb,’” Cunningham said. “But we encourage them to even just come and sit and enjoy the quiet of the garden.”
Cunningham came to Frederick Douglass when it opened five years ago with almost 20 years of teaching experience, but she also came armed with knowledge about gardening. She helped create the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Seeds of Change exhibit in the 1990s. Gardening has always been a family affair, she says. Her father, Bob “Pop” Goodhart, is a horticulturalist who worked as the landscape advisor and director of the Grounds at Christopher Newport University for a decade.
Now retired, Goodhart serves as her sidekick in the school garden. He works alongside students and parents, and runs a blog and podcast to update Frederick Douglass families on what’s growing in the Garden Lab and offers tips about how to grow produce at home.
Frederick Douglass parents, including Leah Fallon, have become just as invested in the Garden Lab. Her family is one of a half dozen who volunteers to care for the garden over the summer. Since Fallon’s daughter, Cady, first began working in the garden as a kindergartener this past year, she now asks to eat vegetables.
“When I ask her what she wants for dinner, she says ‘salad.’ She always wants to eat what we bring home from the garden,” Fallon said. “For my family, it’s been about introducing veggies and learning about bees and butterflies. My younger daughter has been able to learn from her older sister.”
“…It’s made me want to start my own garden,” she added. “And Pop has taught me how to do it sustainably.”
In the summer months, the families tending the garden can take home what they harvest. But during the school year, the students pick fruits, vegetables and herbs and deliver it to the school cafeteria. Cafeteria manager Cathy Wilson helps the students decide what to make with the bounty, to be served during lunch.
“We’re garden to table,” Cunningham said. “Food―and gardens―bring people together.”
Even the fundraising effort for the Garden Lab is really a community effort. Students collect, package and sell seeds from the garden. They come up with creative marketing plans to sell as many seed packets as they can, with all the proceeds going back to improve and maintain the garden.
The school’s PTA also allocates about $500 for the Garden Lab each year, and Cunningham applies for grants to fund garden-related projects beyond that. She thanked businesses and organizations that have helped with this effort, including the Walmart in Sterling, Whole Foods Whole Kids Foundation, and the Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District.
The donations and grants have helped fund a new feature each year, including a fully stocked garden shed, a long table that can seat an entire class, and a lattice wall that an with an espalier apple tree that will produce three different varieties of apples at once.
“Our next goal is skin protection [from the sun]. We want to get a pergola with a shade cloth to go over our table,” Cunningham said. “After that, we want to focus on wind and solar energy” by installing solar panels and windmills, she added. She also hopes to install a water feature to teach students about alternative energy sources.
She believes that something magical happens when kids work—as well as play and learn—in the dirt. It creates a mutually beneficial relationship between the kids and the plants.
“Just getting their hands in the dirt helps kids learn,” Cunningham said. “We have plenty of garden tools, but the best tool of all is the finger.”
Kelsie McCrae is a summer intern with Loudoun Now. She’s studying English literature, leadership studies and business administration at Christopher Newport University. She is an alumna of Loudoun School for the Gifted in Ashburn.