Learning Garden at Clayton Academy teaches more than gardening
Dorian Cole's face lights up as the 11-year-old pulls a huge radish out of a raised bed in the Learning Garden at Clayton Academy in Pittsburgh's North Side.
He is accompanied by Kylee Arlatta, 15. Both worked with other students, staff and the team from Grow Pittsburgh to install and plant this garden. Cole moved a lot of dirt off a truck and was happy to do so.
"It was real fun to shovel and plant stuff," he said smiling. "I had fun."
Arlatta has been watering the plants to keep them thriving, and she helped with the planting along with Cole.
"I planted strawberries, radishes, lettuce," she says proudly.
Arlatta has already learned a lot by spending time in the garden after never gardening before.
"How fast things grow," she says. "You get to see different vegetables grow."
She is waiting patiently in hopes of tasting one of the strawberries in the raised beds. "I really like to go outside and watch things grow," she adds.
Like most gardeners, they have to deal with deer, even in the city. Some of their lettuce was nibbled on, but not completely gone.
One of the things Aratta realized while in the garden is how this space brings students closer by working together.
"It helps us get along with other people," she says.
School social worker Annette Stinson discovered the garden application from Grow Pittsburgh to start the process of getting planting space at this small alternative school. Clayton Academy serves students who have struggled at other schools. She knew that a garden would be helpful for the kids.
"Students here don't have a lot of opportunities of extracurricular after-school activities," Stinson says. "I thought this might be a way to get them engaged; these are students who like to be busy. Putting their hands in the dirt is really therapeutic."
Variety of veggies
This is the first year for the garden and it's booming. The radishes both students picked were larger than golf balls. Beds are filled with beets, herbs, flowering peas, kale, lettuce and more.
Principal Rhonda Brown has seen students make great strides by spending time gardening.
"It's been amazing," she says. "Our kids love it. They want to be the ones to go out and water. They want to see how it's growing."
She sees the garden as a way to share something in common and create a sense of community. Brown was surprised to see how the garden had exploded with growth over the Memorial Day break.
"It's enormous back there," she says smiling. "It just grew so big. It's a process we're really enjoying."
Fresh is best
The students are usually willing to at least give the fresh vegetables a try and many discover the joys of fresh produce.
"They can't wait to eat everything out there. They planted it, 'I don't know what it is, but I have to try it,'" Brown says of the students.
The acceptance of the fresh produce is something Brown has gladly already seen.
"One thing I love about the Grow Pittsburgh garden is that our kids love to eat. The healthy part of it, they don't even know it, they haven't figured that part out yet," she says of her students. "But they are eating healthy and for our kids, that's important, because our kids eat so much junk in a day."
The radishes from the garden have also been a big hit when brought into the cafeteria, something that Grow Pittsburgh's executive director Jake Seltman is thrilled to hear.
"I love the enthusiasm and excitement of seeing people plant a seed, watching it grow and then harvesting," he says.
Seltman adds that kids love surprises and that's what you get when eating a radish for the first time.
"The surprise of a radish when you first eat it, it's watery and doesn't taste like much, but then there's the kick at the end," he said laughing.
The program teaches the joys of gardening, but it's also about growing and eating nutritious food.
"Our mission is to teach people how to grow food and promote the benefits that gardens bring to our neighborhoods," Seltman says. Each school does that in a way that works for them, he adds.
He encourages schools to apply to have a garden. The learning garden program prioritizes schools that have at least 40 percent of their population receive free or reduced priced lunches.
"The more schools and kids that are growing food, the better," he says.
Grow Pittsburgh has a unique partnership for the learning gardens with the national organization Big Green, founded by Kimbal Musk, Elon Musk's brother. They have gardens all over the country. Big Green provides the curved raised beds and Grow Pittsburgh provides the programming.
There are more than 20 Learning Gardens at schools in Allegheny County and eventually will grow to 50 over the next two seasons. They also have four flagship gardens at other schools.
The learning gardens are a two-year program with a learning garden educator in place with the school to work alongside the teachers. The second year the teachers take the lead with support from the learning garden educator.
After the two years, the school graduates from the Learning Garden program, and the teachers, students and staff work the garden.
Besides the school gardens, Grow Pittsburgh oversees community gardens, supports farm education and production at example urban farms and helps backyard gardeners and the public through workshops and other opportunities.
Adia Effiong is a learning garden educator at another school. She was working in a garden bed without gloves, and that amazed the kids who then discovered the fun of getting their hands dirty.
"It feels great," she says of teaching gardening. "The kids have so many questions."
When she shares pea shoots or unique greens with students, they are following her lead as she walks through the garden finding all sorts of new things.
Seltman enjoys seeing students find out about fresh food through the Learning Gardens, but the gardens provide something additional for these kids.
"Given a clean slate, a new opportunity and having meaningful work, recognizing their efforts in planting and watering and caring for life can have huge impacts on their life," he says. "Which speaks to some of the therapeutic benefits we are seeing. It's more than just the food, there's some joy that comes with caring."