Shamrock Gardens Elementary, Charlotte, N.C.
by Bobbie Mabe
A blackwinged Eastern Swallowtail flutters toward a frothy fennel plant that spills over the edge of a raised bed in Shamrock’s butterfly courtyard. She perches, curls her tail, and deposits a bright yellow egg. A striped red caterpillar sporting an assortment of black spikes makes its way through a tangle of passion vines. A goldfinch alights on a pink zinnia, snags a seed, then disappears.
Nearby, in a third grade classroom, students make sushi ingredients, using vegetables harvested from the school’s vegetable gardens and simple knife skills they have honed over several years of preparing the food they’ve grown. They spread sticky rice across deep green leaves from their Bright Lights Swiss Chard plants, choose their fillings, wrap and eat.
Down the hall, fifth grade students have been eagerly watching the courtyard outside their classrooms, which teachers and parents and community members are transforming into a pollinator garden, focused on birds and bees. Weeds have disappeared under layers of cardboard and mulch, the first feeders have been installed, and coming weeks will bring gravel paths, raised beds and benches, and native shrubs.
We started digging and planting at Shamrock Gardens almost a decade ago. Our garden programs reflect our strong belief that every student reaps educational, mental and physical benefits from gardening. In addition, we seek to use our gardens to create a school community that includes not only staff and students, but the plants, animals and insects that inhabit our school grounds. The gardens lift spirits as well as minds, helping make our school a wonderful place to learn, work and grow.
Our edible garden programming gives students, families, staff and community members the chance to be involved in the entire food cycle, from planting seeds to preparing produce for the table.
Our edible garden started with several rockbordered beds where volunteers worked with students and families to grow food. This was mostly done after school and on weekends. Over time, the gardens have become an integral part of our scholars’ experience through curricular connections, garden clubs, and scheduled garden work days for families.
Shamrock Sushi was one such experience. Our third graders had been gardening and cooking since kindergarten: they had turned kale in kale chips, cucumbers into pickles, and carrot tops into soup. The sushi lesson focused on increasing independence, culinary knowledge and skill building. They to boosted knowledge of other cultures, history, current food trends, and social skills. They got to practice leadership and teamwork as well as culinary skills.
Our structures and growing methods have expanded and modified as well. During the last few years we have added hydroponic growing systems and a hoop house for extended growing as well as opportunities to learn about various growing methods. This year we are also working to bring growing to every classroom through grade appropriate curricular connections (small hydroponic systems, sprouting/microgreen growing systems, etc.).
We also plan to start a schoolbased farmers market. The farmers market will offer countless learning opportunities for our scholars, and also address the needs of our families and community. Teaching students how to grow healthy food and make healthy food choices is just the beginning. We want to empower them to change their lives and the lives of others through sharing their knowledge and increasing access to healthy options.
The caterpillars that we collect and raise are the big stars of our butterfly garden, introducing our students to one of nature’s greatest miracles.
To get a good supply of caterpillars you have to plan your garden well. While butterflies can sip nectar from almost any flower, caterpillars can only eat specific plants, known as host plants. Over the years, we have identified our most interesting and reliable caterpillars, and we’ve worked on introducing caterpillar activities grade by grade. Our main host plants are milkweed for Monarchs, parsley and fennel for Eastern Black Swallowtails, spicebush for Spicebush Swallowtails and passion vine for Gulf Fritillaries.
We started with first grade, and for several years our younger scholars have watched caterpillars eat and grow, learned about their strategies for avoiding predators, and witnessed the magical transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Last year, our fourth graders started to raise monarchs, and to explore their long migration to Mexico. This year, our third graders have been learning to be “garden ambassadors” – sharing information about our gardens with visitors and at neighborhood events. In coming years, we will be adding kindergarten, second grade and fifth grade activities.
Our pollinator garden is our latest endeavor, designed to help our students learn about the important roles that pollinators play in our lives, as well as the challenges that pollinators face in our rapidly changing world.
Outfitted with binoculars and field guides, our fifth graders will observe and identify birds in a natural environment, and will be responsible for ensuring that the bird feeders offer a constant supply of seeds. The garden will be planted with an array of flowers, shrubs, vines and tree that have been selected to attract the playful Carolina chickadee, the quiet, yet breathtakingly beautiful Eastern bluebird, the flashy yellow American goldfinch, the speedy ruby-throated hummingbird, and a number of noisy woodpecker species.
Come spring, the students will be “abuzz” with excitement as bees find this oasis of pollen and habitat. The youngest certified beekeeper in our community, who also happens to be a fifth grader at our school, will teach his classmates about beekeeping and honey production.
With the decline in populations of native bees and some species of birds, this garden will offer a unique opportunity for our students to learn about these issues and to be a part of the solution.
Most of our families don’t have a lot of money, and generous grants from Lowe’s Toolbox for Education, Slow Food Charlotte and our local Charlotte North Rotary Club have played important roles in financing our endeavors.
The key to our activities, though, has been the dedicated work done by parents, teachers and other volunteers, who have helped our students build, plant, observe, harvest, prepare, taste and learn. We’ve learned that maintaining a garden takes much more work than building one, and that connecting garden to classroom is the hardest job of all.
We are currently pursuing those tasks by collaborating with a supportive school administration to find useful curricular connections, establishing the gardens as a permanent budget item with our PTA and working to expand our leadership base. It all takes patience and dedication, but the results have been well worth it! For more information about the Shamrock Gardens, please contact Bobbie Mabe; Garden Coordinator.
Do you have an Outdoor Classroom? Would you like to share your Garden Story with us at Outdoor Classrooms? Contact Victoria Hackett for more information.
Meanwhile, share a comment below and let us know how the Shamrock Gardens inspired you! What are your hopes, dreams and plans for your 2016 Outdoor Classroom?