School Gardens Provide Education and Outdoor Opportunities

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(Susan DiStefano, Photorgrapher)
Sleepy Hollow Elementary School garden was a buzz with activity as student and parent volunteers keep the gardens in top shape. With the pandemic, volunteers are scheduled in shifts at the elementary school gardens and Orinda Intermediate School.

    Susan DiStefano and her husband Tony established the Sleepy Hollow Garden Learning Center at her children’s school, Sleepy Hollow School (SHS), 20 years ago. Although there have been ups and downs, the project has continued. Back working there with a dedicated team of volunteers headed by Dana Wentworth, Susan noted the garden is flourishing.
    “Currently there are seven families who volunteer. They are assigned a week to care for the garden and are delighted with the produce which is theirs to take home. A member of the team works with one grade level to engage teachers, students and parent volunteers.  They also coordinate times, curriculum, garden activity, fruit and veggie tasting and maintenance,” DiStefano explained. “Although vegetables primarily make up the garden, DiStefano has added some flowers to attract butterflies.
    DiStefano began at SHS with a bird and butterfly garden.  For this, she received the William Penn Mott award given annually to honor the citizen or group which has displayed outstanding contributions in the preservation of our environment. “It’s been a life-long commitment,” DiStefano said. Her grandmother was a passionate gardener, something DiStefano carries on while still using her grandmother’s watering can.  She attended the Merritt Horticultural program to learn about propagation, plant nutrition and landscape design.  Now, she gardens every day and propagates some 600 to 700 plants each year in her green house with organic seeds she gets from Petaluma.  She freely shares those with the school gardens.
    Wentworth is also a long-time volunteer. She remembered going to school at Sleepy Hollow, graduating in 1985 and wishing she had the opportunity for an outside classroom.  Now, students do. “When my daughter began at SHS,”

   Wentworth said, “I noticed the garden was not being used to its fullest potential.  I started reviving it in a Kindergarten class, and the program grew from there with the help of many parents and the strong support of the principal, Patsy Templeton. The Parents’ Club provided the financial backing necessary.
    “In my opinion, the Learning Garden is an essential resource for students to explore and expand their learning environment. It also serves as a landscape for teachers to develop project-based learning curriculum outside of the traditional four walls, said Wentworth. “Students are not only learning about Environmental Science, teachers are applying math, art and critical thinking to their learning garden lesson plans.”
    One of the unexpected benefits of the garden, according to volunteers, is it encourages students to take the opportunity to try new fruits and vegetables which initially might be outside of their comfort zone.  “We find they are so proud of what they grow and excited to taste tomatoes, kale and chard right off the plant.  They also want to dig in the dirt, turn the soil, explore for worms and bugs,” Wentworth enthused.
    Peter Krimmel and his family are other enthusiastic volunteers.  He said, “I gardened in my parents’ home since I was 12, and then my own.  With my children at SHS, I volunteered in various capacities and then noticed the garden was looking a little sad.  I discussed this with another dad, Jesse Shurter, who also loves gardening. We reached out to the principal and several other folks, including Dana Wentworth, who were interested in getting a good garden program up and running.”  
    Krimmel continues, “During the last several summers, Jesse and I spent significant time overhauling the beds, irrigation and greenhouse, and I regularly assist during the school year as one of our grade-level garden managers.  I love helping the kids get their hands dirty and seeing the joy they get from working a real garden.  They love the change from being in a classroom to being outdoors. They also like to see plants in the garden, such as broccoli, arugula and kale that they normally only see as finished produce.  They also learn some new skills they might not have exposure to at home.  Last year, working with fifth graders, it was amazing to see how many of them were using a hammer and nails for the first time.  
    “It’s also great for them to see plants grow from seed to harvest and witness the entire plant lifecycle.  For example, the first time they harvest potatoes from dirt is a near magical experience for them, almost as if they are mining gold.”  
    These volunteers, and others, are hoping to get community members involved at the school. DiStefano suggested, “Retired people volunteer at hospitals, libraries and animal shelters; why not volunteer at a local school garden?  Since in so many families both parents are working, community volunteers are badly needed to step up and help the younger generation. Each school needs a leader, and a viable team to energize the program and keep it going.”
    There are gardens at all the schools in various stages of commitment.  Del Rey School is forming a team with five families working there now. Also, DiStefano has given Debra Jockish at Orinda Intermediate School some plants with the hope more people will step up and volunteer there.
    DiStefano noted, “Sebastian Broekman, the gardener for the Orinda Union School District, deserves commendation for the help he gives.” She also lauded Brian Gates, owner of the Expert Tree Company, who recently sent two fellows with chain saws, chippers, and anything he thought we needed to fulfill our mission. She exclaimed, “They spent the entire day working in the bird and butterfly garden, all for free.” 
    “In the time of the pandemic, students will be learning online this fall semester. We’re hoping that teachers will encourage the kids to go into the garden and carry out assignments. I think that parents will be looking for things to do outside with their kids,” DiStefano observed. She added that during this time “the garden committees will continue to have volunteers work on a schedule so the gardens won’t be neglected. This will also assure that they’re ready when students go back to school, whenever that is. Each school in the Orinda district has a garden; all are looking for volunteers.”
    If you happen to be by the SHS garden and see a lady digging while wearing pearls, that’s Susan DiStefano.  Her mother gave them to her, and she said, “I’m never without my jewelry when I garden. My belief is one should go through life with style, no matter what and even in the garden.” She added, “Or look for my license plate which reads, GDNDIVA. I hope to hear from members of the community who will step up and help the younger generation with this endeavor. We are all in this together as a community.”
    To volunteer or for further information contact gardendivasvd@gmail.com.  If you are unable to volunteer, DiStefano says you can donate through Oneorinda.org. Specify your contribution is for school gardens.

(Susan Distefano, Photographer)
The garden at Del Rey Elementary School sports beautiful lush plants thanks to the volunteer gardeners.

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