Garden is a 24/7 classroom for school

 Garnett McDaniel checks tomatoes in the garden at South Side Elementary. (Photo by Steve Rogers/DTL)
Staff Writer

It's like a classroom that never closes.

It has something new every day. And when third- and fourth-graders return to school next month at South Side Elementary, it'll be one of the first things some of them will want to see.

Last year, Quest teachers Garnett McDaniel and Anna Coker used a $5,000 grant McDaniel got from Mississippi University for Women to build a garden in one of the school's grassy areas.
The site already has an outdoor classroom so the garden, which actually is a series of raised beds complete with planting tables and a greenhouse, was a logical addition.

They started last fall with a winter garden that in McDaniel's words was "not as successful as we would have liked,"although the students did produce kale and cabbage. One of the highlights was cooking kale for their parents.

They also picked lettuce for salads with their parents.
The effort -- and products -- expanded with the spring planting.

The students used their planting tables and trays to start some plants from seeds. They got others as seedlings.
The crop includes a variety of herbs, flowers such as zinnias and sunflowers, and vegetables such as okra, squash, tomatoes, egg plant, peppers, asparagus and beans.

The teachers will plant pumpkins soon for a fall treat.
It's the second time McDaniel has done a garden.

The first was at Central School when she taught there. That one was funded by a $3,000 grant from Lowe's.

When she transferred to South Side, she wanted to do a garden again for her Quest gifted student program.
 She applied for the grant. At about the same time, Mississippi State University's education program picked West Point for an after-school program.

One of its features was a "Farm to Table" Club.

They've all made a perfect fit at South Side.

"When I got the first grant and did the garden at Central, the kids were so into it, I was surprised. Then we brought it over here. We've been very pleased," McDaniel said.
"Most of the students don't have gardens at home. A few do but not many. A few have grandparents who have gardens and they help them. But it seems to be a generational thing. The parents today just go to the grocery store. They don't have time or space to do a garden," the teacher said of the exposure the program offers.
"The students are really loving it. I know when they come back in August, it'll be one of the first things they will want to do...check on the garden and pick things if we can and start planning for the pumpkins and winter garden," she continued.

The after-school program included a four-week summer camp in June so McDaniel had some student help keeping the garden up and using it as an instructional tool.

Church Hill Elementary teachers Cindy Andrews and Tammy Hamby taught in the program and chimed in on the garden.

Hamby once worked in a plant nursery so her experience was particularly useful.

The garden is a natural tie-in to the theme of the after-school program -- "Read to Learn, Learn to Do."
And it has been a learning experience not just for the students but also the teachers.
"I had never had a garden before so I've really learned a lot, too. I've had to Google a lot of things.

It's been fun for me to learn along with the students," McDaniel described, noting that between the after-school program and the Quest classes she shares with Coker -- McDaniel teachers third grade and Coker fourth in the same classroom -- more than 100 students have been involved.

"They do everything. They plant everything and they tend to it. It's a great hands-on experience. We do recipes which helps them with math and reading, it works in to everything we do," she said.
 "With the herbs, we have them rub them and smell and taste them. It's a unique experience for most of them. We made mint tea. Some of them really didn't like that very much.

"And we have bird feeders that attract all kinds of birds. And the flowers attract really pretty butterflies. It's one big learning experience," she stated.

The garden also has revealed a few surprises.

Egg plant traditionally is not seen as a child favorite.
But the summer group fried it and squash and "they loved it," McDaniel said.

Egg plant still should be around when students return in August.
One of the biggest rushes for the kids is inviting their parents in to share in the bounty.

That's something they will try to arrange early in the school year while the garden still is producing.

"They are proud of what they grow and like showing it off. And some of the kids who do have experience with gardens, it boosts their confidence to be able to help some of those who aren't as experienced," the teacher noted.

The high school's Career Technical Center students built benches that allow other classes to come out and enjoy the flowers, birds, butterflies, bees and other attractions.

The CTC students also built the planting tables.

Those will be put to use when students get back, starting things like radishes, ornamental squash, spinach, beets, carrots -- "they love the carrots because they grow underground" -- and other items for fall and winter gardens.

The greenhouse also will be put into operation, opening up a whole new educational element about the seasons, condensation, sunlight, and other aspects of science.
The pumpkins and ornamental gourds will become fall art projects as well as food items.

"It just provides something, some kind of learning opportunity all the time. And it's different every day. That's what makes it so cool," she concluded.