My dad grew tomato plants during my childhood. I don’t think I helped grow them. I know I didn’t eat them. In the 1970s, things like peaches were mushy cubes drowning on a cafeteria tray. I remember the very first time I ate a peach at an orchard. I can quote my exact thoughts:
This is a peach?
As a student, I have found that the more senses I engage, the more effectively I learn. Naturally we see what instructors are doing and hear what they are saying, but when we get our hands in that cold gritty soil, smell the earthy compost and taste the harvest, the lessons are more effectively integrated and remembered.
It’s good when those lessons are learned when we’re young. They stay with us for the rest of our lives. The Green Heart Project is doing exactly that.
The Green Heart Project started in 2009 at Mitchell Elementary in downtown Charleston, an area labeled as a "food desert," where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited. The first urban garden began as an outdoor third-grade classroom. To date, it has expanded to six Lowcountry locations.
With the help of volunteers, students start gardens from seeds. After-school programs allow them to get dirty weeding and irrigating. They learn the value of native plants and how drip irrigation works. They make messy compost and learn how plant materials decompose because of microorganisms, black soldier fly larvae and worms. The end product of composting is a lively, nutrient-rich material that can be returned to the soil for next year’s garden.
Finally, they see the proverbial fruits of their labor.
This includes herbs and fruit trees, as well as vegetables. Most third graders, however, aren’t likely to eat a tomato like an apple, but the Green Heart Program brings its seed-to-harvest curriculum full circle with the Healthy Hearts program. It teaches them how to prepare meals from their harvest. Students learn cooking skills and the nutritional value of eating locally. This isn’t a seed-to-harvest program, it’s a seed-to-eat program. All five senses are engaged.
The results aren’t just limited to gardening skills. There is a noticeable social impact. Taking responsibility for gardens creates a sense of pride and accomplishment. Working with Green Heart mentors facilitates interactions with others who are working toward a common goal. Being outdoors, getting dirty and exercising has a profound impact on mental and emotional well-being. This can’t be understated in an era where our phones are winning battles for attention.
There are other local horticulture programs engaged in activities similar to what the Green Heart Project is doing.
The Lowcountry Sustainability Program at James B. Edwards Elementary was started by Kim Crane, a graduate of TTC’s horticulture program. She and her volunteers engage students in pre-K through fifth grade and cover the South Carolina science standards through hands-on learning. They use worm compost and coco coir for sustainable soil mixtures and capture rainwater for irrigation. Students volunteer their recess time to work. They organize two plant sales and students learn the business of cost and profit.
It’s not all work and no play. The TTC horticulture program donates insect collections to the Lowcountry Sustainability Program. Bugs are both fascinating and horrifying. They are creepy, sure, but they’re also essential to the environment.
Very few kids will forget the life cycle of a Lowcountry dung beetle once they hear about it, see it and touch it. When I take hissing cockroaches to STEM events, there are countless selfies posted on social media. No one has ever posed with a sprinkler. Students learn the necessity of beneficial insects eating plant pests and how the majority of insects are minding their own business while feeding on organic matter.
For more information about elementary school gardening programs and how to volunteer, go to greenheartsc.org (Green Heart Project) or www.facebook.com/lowcountrysustainability (Lowcountry Sustainability Program).