By B.C. Manion
The first-graders in Monica Dinwiddie’s class were animated.
Their arms were full of hay and they were scattering it all about to provide mulch.
The scene played out in a garden patch behind Dinwiddie’s classroom at New River Elementary in Wesley Chapel.
But they aren’t the only ones who tend the 60-foot by 25-foot plot of ground.
Every student at New River gets to spend some time growing corn, tomatoes, green peppers, eggplants, squash, lettuce, herbs, strawberries and other plants.
On one level, the school uses the garden to grow food; on another, to cultivate children’s minds.
This is the fourth year New River has had a garden.
In previous years, vegetables the youngsters grew became toppings for sun-baked pizza or were ingredients in pesto sauce and zucchini bread.
This year, the school’s aim is more ambitious.
It wants the garden to yield enough produce to have a Farmer’s Market in May.
Along the way, teachers plan to use trips to the garden to bring lessons to life.
Each grade is focused on its own learning goals, said Amy Goforth, who teaches second grade at the school.
Her grade level, for example, is learning about soil testing and how acidity and alkalinity can affect plant growth.
Third-grade teacher Sarah Bordner said her students are researching the internal and external parts of a plant and will create a model of things grown in the garden. The students will also describe the function of each part, she said.
Bordner’s students will also discuss such things as how the sun’s energy and the seasons affect a plant’s growth.
The garden is useful in reinforcing instruction in various subjects, Bordner said.
Recently, her students went to the garden as part of a mathematics exercise.
They measured the length of leaves, roots and the stem, she said. Then, they went back to the classroom to write about it.
“If we integrate the subject areas, how much more powerful they become,” Bordner said.
Besides giving children a chance to see concrete examples, the garden also makes learning more fun, Goforth said.
“Whenever we say we are going outside to the garden, they are thrilled,” Goforth said.
Dinwiddie, who heads up the school’s fourth annual Dig Day, is pleased to see the garden play a larger role in student learning, while also promoting healthy eating habits.
She also applauded The Home Depot for helping the school plant the garden at its Dig Day.
“We had 40 families sign up,” Dinwiddie said. “Home Depot brought four of their employees to help. They donated the sod cutter. They donated their time.”
Bliss Feed Supply in Zephyrhills has also helped by providing discounted hay for mulch.
One of the teachers also donated a citrus tree.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, the kids planted marigolds.
“We did research,” Dinwiddie said. “Bugs do not like the scent of marigolds.”
Fourth-grade teacher Laura Carlson said children in her grade level are learning all about composting.
“The district spends $600,000 a year in solid waste,” Carlson said. “Then, we brainstormed. How many ways can we reduce that?’’
The children have been learning about what items can be composted and which should be recycled. They’re also learning how long it takes for vegetable matter to decompose, Carlson said.
The fourth-graders are taking a leadership role in the school’s composting efforts, Carlson said.
“They have to come up with a plan,” Carlson said. “The who, the what, the when, the how. … They already have one plan. While at lunch, they’re going to collect the things from the tray that can be put in the compost.”
The teachers said principal Lynn Pabst is a big supporter of using the garden to help children learn.
Pabst said beyond using the garden to reinforce lessons, it gives children a chance to try something new: “There’s a lot of kids in our area, and all around, that haven’t have the experience of growing things.”
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