Schools are teaching students through garden lessons

| Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, 7:20 p.m.

A year ago, there was only a grassy courtyard and an unused greenhouse from the 1970s when Pittsburgh Langley K-8 in Sheraden opened as an elementary/middle school. A year later, the greenhouse has been brought to life by students, teachers and volunteers, and there are 10 raised beds of vegetables and herbs that reflect international heritages.

“These are enriching experiences you can't learn out of a book. They have to engage and live it,” says Principal Rodney Necciai. “It's been amazing.”

The students have planted, cared for and are now harvesting the garden.

The positive energy is growing. “It's about tying it into the school experience. It's a lot more than just sitting and listening. We're doing it together,” Necciai says.

At several schools throughout the region, students are learning the “R” of reaping a harvest, along with the basics of reading, writing and 'rithmetic.

Six schools participating in Grow Pittsburgh's Edible Schoolyard program grow the “Three Sister” crops of corn, beans and squash. The upright corn becomes a trellis for the beans, and the huge leaves of the squash “keep down the weeds,” says Jake Seltman, education director of Grow Pittsburgh. “These three sisters work together. We say to the kids, ‘How are you working together?' There is also a historical significance that these were traditional crops grown by Native Americans.”

At Pittsburgh Langley, each Friday features a cooking lesson with school-grown produce that used to make salsa, salads and soups. Garden abundance is sent home with kids to cook for their families.

“Students realize that soup doesn't always come from a can,” says Chef Odette Smith Ransome from the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. She was brought to the school by a Citiparks partnership to teach culinary skills and had the inspiration for a garden that has involved the entire school.

Kelly McCarron, a Penn State Master Gardener, is the chairwoman of landscape committee at Connoquenessing Valley Elementary School in the Seneca Valley School District, which has three gardens — vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. A claw-foot bathtub overflows with a mint plant that smells like chocolate.

Volunteers and teachers helped the students plant and tend the garden. Now, students have places to relax, to read by themselves or study in two outdoor classrooms with tree stumps, picnic tables, benches and an overhead trellis.

“You put a call out for volunteers and people will give a few hours. People say, ‘I don't weed at home, but I'll do it here,' ” McCarron says.

Come January, students will still be outside growing lettuce in cold frames — and eating it, too, as well as planning for a schoolwide farmers market in the spring.

Grow Pittsburgh's Edible Schoolyard program began eight years ago in Dillworth and Faison elementary schools, where the corn is now “out of reach” of the kindergartners. The program's website ( now features 72 lesson plans ranging from cooking to composting.

“This model needs a lot of energy and now we want to share our resources so any school that has a little bit of land can replicate it,” Seltman says.

Grow Pittsburgh also helps schools analyze the soil, as well as how to nurture it. What type of crops work best often depends upon the location, he says.

The Frick Environmental Charter School in Regent Square is in its second year of the Edible Schoolyard project. The school already has an emphasis on the environment, and the school garden enhances the curriculum. The school also participates in the Penn State Certified Master Gardener's new “Seedlings” program, sponsored by the Sprout Foundation, that brings the outdoors into classrooms.

“Our second-graders learn about herbs, butterflies, how to save seeds and do work in the garden,” says Laura Micco, a science coach and environmental coordinator.

Last year, parent volunteers helped during the summer. This fall, the school will establish an after-school gardening club. “We will work on planning, what to plant — we can put that into a math class — how tall will plants grow. The spring will focus on how to grow food and take care of plants,” she says.

To keep a garden growing, it needs the community, says Barbara Carrier, a kindergarten teacher at Sewickley Academy. The garden, which is a learning experience for preschoolers through high-school students, is supported through community donations.

“One person can't do it alone,” Carrier says. “Get the adults excited. Do it piecemeal. Plan something new for each year.”

The garden now has its own irrigation system that was put in by volunteers. “We added that after a summer of drought, and our struggle with the hoses,” she says.

Many school gardeners say the experience has led to “unexpected” garden-related events, too, such as chickens visiting Pittsburgh Montessori School in Friendship, or the school's “Chef in the Garden” program, where chefs from local restaurants visit the school.

“They'll conduct a food lesson out in our garden and the kids will all sit on hay bales,” says teacher Courtney Thrall.

At the schools participating in the Edible Schoolyard project, students learn about compost through the “Compost Relay,” a lesson where they cheer each other on as they make soil — keeping track of the ratios of green and brown materials — in a race of two teams.

But diving into the dirt, with little preparation, also works.

“I teach city schoolkids, and most don't have a backyard,” says Kristen Novak, at Pittsburgh Greenfield K-8 where many international students attend.

In March, her sixth-graders planted lettuce, tomatoes and strawberry seeds in windowsill trays. “By April, 90 percent sprouted. By mid-May, it was amazing, and then we planted them outside where before there had only been concrete.”

Then, the little miracles happened, she says.

“Somebody donated a picnic table, then another person donated a birdhouse, and then some wind chimes. Kids started gardens at home — and they worked together. We have two students from Iraq who couldn't speak with other kids, but they could garden together. That was the harvest of our garden.”

Jane Miller is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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