Teaching Moments in a Desert Garden
When I arrive at Las Milpitas de Cottonwood community gardens, Josh Banno and a group of students are already working. They had taken the city bus from their downtown high school as they do every Friday afternoon as an after school option activity to work on their small piece of ground in the larger community garden. The Garden Class is one of a number of afternoon options for students offered by City High School in Tucson, Arizona. Josh has been the teacher of this class and a Monday afternoon Sustainable Living class during the past school year. A recent class activity was to establish a school vermiculture project that will eventually benefit the garden.
City High started the gardening initiative three years ago. The teacher who spearheaded that effort has moved on, but the partnership with Las Milpitas de Cottonwood Community Garden has thrived. As I greet Josh and his students, I sense that students enjoy being together in this outdoor environment, most of them regularly making the Friday trip out from downtown to plant, weed, and harvest. We survey the eight fifteen-foot long beds of vegetables that they are tending, featuring impressively large cauliflower heads, vibrant broccoli, collards, kale, chard, lettuce, peas, cabbage, and more.
Myriad lessons are learned in the garden classroom. Discovery of aphids on the Brussels sprout plants leads to a discussion about possible approaches to that pest attack. Soapy water is sprayed on the plants, and lower levels of leaves are taken off to allow more air to circulate.
Learning about the growth of plants is a primary goal; finding different insects on plants or in the soil adds another layer of interest for the gardeners. They express wonder at a world of pill bugs infesting an old chard root and at the sudden realization that there is such a thing as a broccoli flower.
There is an easy comaraderie between the students, their teacher Josh, and Liz Werner, an adult volunteer. During a break, Josh shares a treat of dates that he brought for everyone. This occasions another teaching moment: there is such a thing as a “glycemic index” which indicates how fast glucose from a food gets into one’s bloodstream. Dates happen to be at almost the very top of the scale. As the conversation continues, recipes are exchanged for date smoothies with almond milk and bananas.
The schedule for the two hour work session moves from getting organized to identifying the jobs. It is interesting to see how the students step up to the work, their individualities expressing themselves in their actions. Josh’s aim as a teacher is to offer opportunities to the students to do things out of their own interest and excitement. This fine day in the garden that strategy is working well. Students haul compost, weed beds, and clear out older plants to make room for new seeding.
Students listen as Josh shows them how they can identify plants of the mint family by the square stem. A nice broccoli head is passed around, everybody breaking off a branch to taste it. The work moves now from weeding to harvesting.
Some students are quite experienced in this aspect of the work, and they carefully choose leaves from several varieties of lettuce, Brussels sprouts, and armfuls of kale, chard, and collards. Each week’s harvest is taken back to school and divided for use. Some goes home with the students, some is for staff use, and some is used in the Thursday after school Culinary Class. Several of the student gardeners are also student chefs.
As the students collect the tools and pack up the day’s bountiful harvest to haul back to school on the city bus, other people arrive at the community garden to work their beds and rows, collect the eggs, and greet their friends for awhile after a day’s work somewhere else. This day the sky is full of clouds, and it is easy to hope for rain.
Celebrate youth! Celebrate community! Join City High students at City High School’s annual Pennington Street Block Party on Friday, April 11, 2014 from 4:00-7:00 p.m. in downtown Tucson, Arizona.