How a Portland organization is using school gardens to plant seeds of trust

In front of Powell Butte Elementary School on the east side of Portland, Oregon, is a converted patch of concrete. In a plot no more than 20 feet long, there are rosemary bushes planted alongside grapes that hang from a curved trellis. A patch with the three sisters (corn, squash and beans) stands alongside a colorful shoot of nasturtiums. In the center is a well-worn picnic table, its grooves long since sanded and flattened by hundreds of little hands.

It is the learning garden for students from kindergarten through sixth grade. Each week, students have the chance to go out into the garden during after-school programs and, sometimes, even for classroom instruction. Behind the school, in the large community garden, a larger production plot is developing. This is for students at nearby David Douglas High School. And throughout Portland, these school gardens spring up like wildflowers across the landscape, bringing bursts of color to the city and the students who care for it.

It is the purpose of Growing gardens, a Portland-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting garden-based learning opportunities and celebrating local food. Each year, the organization reaches nearly 3,000 students through classroom courses and the after-school Garden Club. Last year, the Powell Butte crew grew nearly 500 pounds of food, ranging from potatoes and cucumbers to varieties of peppers, sorrel, collard greens and huauzontle, a hardy grass native to Mexico.

It’s a lot to manage, and the Growing Gardens team members are trying to think through how they schedule the lessons. “The curriculum really builds on itself every year,” says Anna Garwood, co-director of the organization’s Youth Grow program, who stresses the importance of experiential learning as a tool. “There are students who may not shine in class, but when they are in the garden, they are truly kinetic learners. Describing volume on a two-dimensional worksheet is different from saying “OK, we’re going to build a garden bed.” How much land are we going to need?

Building on these skills year after year, students grow with the gardens and find tasks and opportunities that await them based on their age and skill level. Elementary students work with Angeles Martinez Silverio, a Youth Grow educator, in gardening and cooking after school. First, Silverio helps kids decide what to grow and explains what will thrive in their particular climate. “Sometimes, [the kids will] let’s say mangoes or oranges, and so we have to explain why some of these warm climate plants won’t grow in Oregon, but then I can suggest strawberries, blueberries, or blackberries. Silverio also adds flowers and other plants to the garden to use in art projects, as well as to help children understand plant life cycles.

“When the pollinators arrive [for the flowers], they help fruits and vegetables to grow better. In the school curriculum, there is a whole unit on pollinators, solid fertility and ecosystems,” says Silverio. “We want students to see insects, bees and worms and not think that they are scary, but that they are our friends.”

The spirit of these lessons continues through high school. At David Douglas High School, Corey Pierson, a food systems educator, also works with students to determine what they want to grow, but the process is more collaborative for older children. Pierson launches a poll early in the year, gathering student feedback and also partnering with school groups like the Black Student Union or the Indigenous Student Union to incorporate culturally significant cultures. Then they cook with their own harvests, making pesto and salsas, and even more ambitious recipes like mochi fritters.

For older students, however, Pierson says there is more cultural and environmental awareness. Many of the students who attend his garden clubs are particularly interested in environmental justice work. “Children are nervous about the state of the world and they want to feel that they can do something, so it is important to entrust them with this power,” says Pierson. In this way, the garden also becomes a safe space. for teens, a place where they can empower themselves “There is a lot of value in being able to be yourself in a space that is not judged by your parents or anyone at home. not judged by your friends or peers. You are just with other people who like the same things you do.

And for students in that particular district, that can be especially important. East Portland is a diverse area, with Hispanic, Asian, and Russian students, among others. Silverio believes being able to grow traditional Mexican foods helps connect these young students to their heritage. “I’m from Mexico, I come from a Hispanic culture, and even my own kids didn’t grow up in Mexico,” Silverio says. “Part of the reason I teach the Three Sisters lessons…is to introduce these things. Why do we celebrate Day of the Dead? Why do we do certain dances? Why do we plant corn?

For older students, Pierson spends time with students of color, striving to nurture a relationship with outside work, which can be difficult with generational trauma. “Every minority group in the United States has had its workforce exploited to work the land in one way or another,” says Pierson. This can lead to a loss of connection to the earth, which Pierson is trying to curb “because that connection will be needed as we go through these tumultuous years of climate change.”

Growing Gardens pays particular attention to these cultural needs. It brings in guest speakers from farm worker unions or community gardens and tries to highlight the leaders of BIPOC food systems. According to Garwood, the organization is looking to expand the program even further, but it wants to do so strategically. “We want to have longer-term relationships with each of the schools because we see how the program improves as the relationships deepen,” says Garwood.

The nonprofit has already expanded to serve young children, building their first garden as part of a Headstart program and reaching families with preschoolers. During the pandemic, Growing Gardens moved its School Garden Coordinator Training Certification online, so more people can access the training and get involved. He also organized the program as a national course, training people across the country.

It’s easy to see why Growing Gardens wants to expand. Silverio, Pierson and Garwood light up when they talk about the changes they have witnessed in students exposed to the gardening program. For some children, this spark may occur when they try a new type of food that they have never eaten before. Maybe they get a glimpse of a career they might want to pursue after high school. And for others, it might be something as simple as getting your hands dirty.

Above all, watching the growth of students’ confidence and sense of self is an amazing thing to see. “Some students are even nervous about going into the garden because they’re afraid of spiders or worms,” ​​says Silverio, “but once they go in and see what [insects] do, they become more comfortable.

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