Awesome School Gardens

The Tampa Bay Area is rich with wonderful local fresh produce that comes from gardens, farms and orchards. Bright-colored, just-picked fresh fruits and veggies are easy to come by. In fact, gardens big and small are everywhere, even in our school systems. Fit4Allkids decided to head out in the field and visit one of our local school gardens here in Pinellas County. Pinellas County schools actually have more than 60 gardens being cared for by school staff, volunteers and students. That is amazing when you think about it! We just had to learn more, so the Fit4Allkids team headed to Pinellas Park Middle School (PPMS) to check out their school garden and see firsthand what a school garden looks like.

Meet Jamie Colver

Jamie Colver, the Agriscience/Intro to Agriculture teacher at Pinellas Park Middle School, just happens to have an extraordinary green thumb and a great passion for fresh, healthy foods. Colver walks the walk and talks the talk when it comes to gardening and helping her students learn about the importance of growing fresh, healthy foods. She and her students maintain the PPMS garden throughout the school year. The students learn about composting, planting and harvesting. They also get to taste test what they grow. Colver showed us all the wonderful veggies that they care for, including butter crunch lettuce, sweet peas, eggplant, green beans, cabbage, kale, broccoli and tomatoes. We sat down with her to find out more - and this is what we learned.

Who is responsible for the garden?

Colver: I have been with Pinellas Park Middle for the past three years, and this has been an ongoing project that myself and the students have been working on to both maintain and expand. Our school staff is very supportive of our efforts, so together the students and I are able to care for the garden. I teach Intro to Agriscience and my students are very fortunate to spend half of their class time in the classroom and then the other half outside in the garden. This is how we are able to take such great care of the plants.

Can you tell us what happens to the food that comes from the garden?

Colver: I'm lucky to be able to utilize the food in the classroom for education as well as offer my students fresh tastings of all the plants they are learning about and growing firsthand. Someday, if we can produce enough food from the garden, we would like to use some in our culinary classes.

What do you tell people when they ask, why a school garden?

Colver: There are many reasons to want to do something like this on a school campus. Today, we are a society that struggles with many health issues. Providing education to students on where fresh healthy food comes from and letting them experience and try new foods is a great teaching opportunity - and that may just provide them with some skills and insight that could keep them healthy for years to come.

What advice would you tell students or school staff at other schools who are interested in starting a school garden?

Colver: I would love to see all of our schools, including the elementary schools, have this type of education in place. Getting the kids hooked on learning and trying healthy foods should start as early as possible. If someone is truly interested in doing a start-up garden, then here are my tips for getting started:

  • Whether you are student or a teacher, find a garden champion at your school to support your efforts. There are going to be lots of questions and decisions to make, and you will need some help and support.
  • Start small, especially if you are trying to figure out a budget for your garden. Many times the Dollar Store will have gardening tools and even seeds to get you going. The garden here at PPMS was started in a small area with a budget that was under $100.
  • Talk with someone who knows about grants (Grants provide money for special projects). There are many grant opportunities out there that support gardens, but it will take someone with experience to help you write a really good grant proposal.
  • Ask local stores and nurseries for possible donations. Sometimes a local nursery or home supply store might have plans to throw something out that might be of great use to you, like extra seeds, dirt, plants or maybe some planting pots. They also might have extra wood for planting boxes.
  • Talk with your school's PTA. Maybe they can assist with funding for a start-up garden. They might also be willing to get the message out to parents who could be willing to help with funding for this special project.

What do you like best about having a garden on campus and what do you think the students like best about having it on campus?

Colver: For me, it is about offering our students an opportunity to learn and discover firsthand. I love to see their sense of wonder, and watching them experience it together with their peers makes a huge impact.

For the students, I would say they enjoy being outside working in the garden the best, and they also love the tastings of all the fresh foods. They are very adventurous and love trying anything new.

We heard something about the project at Rawlings Elementary School that your kids worked on. Can you explain what that was and how it worked?

Colver: I'll be glad to! We began the project at Rawlings Elementary School in late October of 2011 and completed it in the spring of 2012. Once a week, a select group of my science students, students from my garden club and I would walk to Rawlings to work on the project. We cleared a space in the center of their campus about the size of my small garden. Once the area was cleared, we built six raised beds - one for each grade level - and filled them with a mixture of organic soil and top soil.

The teachers at Rawlings are planning to utilize the garden across the curriculum. The wood for their beds was provided by their teachers and PTA. The nails, brackets and soil were funded in part by a grant. What a gratifying and wonderful experience. I am truly grateful to them for allowing us to mentor their students as well as expand our knowledge and experience through building the garden. As I mentioned, I feel it's essential that every public school, especially elementary schools, should have a campus garden. The future is green, and the earlier we can instill a love and true respect for the land and what it can provide in our younger generation, the better.

Okay, last question. What does the future look like for the PPMS garden?

Colver: Right now, we have two beautiful areas on campus dedicated as gardens. I hope that with additional funding and support we will expand these efforts to more areas around campus. In addition, one of my other hopes is to have chickens on campus so that we not only have fresh produce but also fresh eggs.

Special Thanks to Pinellas Park Middle School and Ms. Colver for giving us the time and opportunity to learn more about your amazing school garden. We love the work you are doing and the healthy eating message you are providing the students. Way to go!

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