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Food & Farming / News & Views / Central Grade Youth Garden: A Planting Party

Central Grade Youth Garden: A Planting Party

School community brings project back to life

Farm to School | June 10, 2013 | By Zoë McAlear

School Garden Tour: Traverse Heights Elementary


A circle of raised beds filled with vegetables and herbs. 


The 11 garden tours of the inaugural School Garden Week highlighted the work that schools and children’s centers have been putting in to their garden programs. Kirsten Gerbatsch, a FoodCorps service member with the Michigan Land Use Institute, coordinated this year’s school garden and was the organizer of the event at Traverse Heights Elementary, where they have a circle of raised beds filled with vegetables and herbs.

As school was dismissed, kids proudly brought their parents over to the garden to show them what they had planted. They were thrilled to learn that there were radishes and carrots ready to be pulled from the soil.

“School gardens provide an invaluable opportunity for young students to connect to the natural world, cultivate and eat fresh, healthy foods, and build their sense of place,” Gerbatsch said. “Gardens also make it possible for kids to apply what they are doing in the classroom to hands-on, tactile activities, which helps them to really learn.”

-Zoë McAlear

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Volunteers work in the garden at Central Grade Youth and Community Garden.

Despite chilly temperatures and the constant threat of rain from the dark skies, Central Grade School was buzzing with activity on June 2 as teachers and faculty, parents, and students came together to celebrate their new school garden and participate in some spring planting.

The Central Grade community has constructed an impressive layout with bordering heirloom gardens, 12 raised beds filled with a variety of vegetables and herbs, and a teepee where kids swarmed, excited to put squash and pumpkin plants in the ground.

Among all of this activity were parents and teachers hard at work on the manual labor and keeping the kids organized. Sam Porter is a parent at Central Grade who has been instrumental in getting this project off—or in—the ground, but the garden’s history goes back to the early 2000s.

It was a “master idea,” said Allyn Cornwell, a longtime teacher at the school who joined forces with others to get a school garden started. “Little did I know it was going to be this large.” It was created with help from parents, teachers, and $10,000 raised by students, but faltered within a couple of years after volunteers left the area or lost interest.  

It’s hard to imagine a lack of parent interest now as Sam Porter, Cornwell’s nephew-in-law, has inspired the community for a second try. He describes the lack of a garden as “educational sin” and laments the fact that the children “don’t know how to vote with their fork.”

Conversations about bringing back the garden had been ongoing for many years, but two years ago, Porter decided that enough was enough, and joined together with other families to get started.

“I was motivated to do this garden first for the kids…it was heartbreaking for my green thumb to not see these kids have any connection to a garden. And two, I wanted to build a fun project to build parent involvement [because] when the kids lead, the parents follow.”

Porter has big dreams for the future of the garden: connecting to the youth-run Carter’s Compost to design their own compost system; constructing a farmers market stand in front of the school to be staffed by kids in summer programs; even a booth at the real farmers market.

“People will really fall in love with a school-led farmers market stand,” he said.  

For now, the garden will remain a central part of the school community and he envisions a sign reading, “Take only what you need and please pick a weed,” to convey the community spirit.  

Porter is working on creating a legacy so the project doesn’t fizzle out in a couple of years. He recruited Girls on the Run and local Girl Scouts to build the raised beds and has now approached the Girl Scouts with a five-year “contract” to use as “stewardship programming” for the garden.

There was an optimistic and hopeful air at Central Grade School as the community celebrated the new garden. Savannah Buist and Katie Larson of The Accidentals filled the area with their lively music and kids enjoyed cups of fresh lemonade and bowls of ice cream in the grass after finishing with the plantings. The parents and teachers continued to work in the gardens, struggling to clear out the very overgrown heirloom garden.

As a part of the heirloom garden, there is a Peace Garden and a pole stating: “May Peace Prevail on Earth.” It is projects like the Central Grade Youth and Community Garden, designed to inspire the next generation to think carefully about their place in the world, that make a sentiment like that seem possible. 

Zoë McAlear is a summer intern with MLUI working in the Communications department. You can reach her at zoe@mlui.org.

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