Almost two decades ago, when a little building on the Newport Elementary School campus was being torn down, then-Teacher Tiffany Lewis thought the space would be perfect for a garden. She envisioned a place where students could learn about the life cycles of plants, plus get a taste of the literal fruits of their labor.
She took her idea to the PTA and wrote grant proposals for funding. Home Depot and Lowe’s donated lumber and dirt. Parents volunteered their time to build planters. Lewis worked with a master gardener to plan what to plant, settling on a salsa garden (tomatoes, peppers, onion, and cilantro) and the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash).
“I had a strong volunteer community to get it started and keep it going, and the kids just loved it,” recalls Lewis, now the principal at Andersen Elementary.
Though Lewis has since moved on, the garden at Newport Elementary remains. It’s now maintained by Science Teacher Monique Sweet, who also took over the garden at Rea Elementary School. “It’s basically a labor of love. At each school, I’ve let the garden evolve based on the students’ needs and interests. It’s a great way to connect with the kids,” she said.
Most Newport-Mesa Unified School District elementary schools now have gardens on campus that can be used as part of science lessons. Students at all levels can learn about the life cycle of plants, with opportunities to participate at every stage: seeding, mulching, weeding, pruning, planting, harvesting, etc. Additional learning opportunities include composting, the differences between organic and non-organic gardening, the importance of rotating crops, and water conservation. Gardens with milkweed plants can also be used to study the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies.
In June 2023, then-sixth-graders at Rea Elementary planted pumpkin seeds. Over the summer, parent volunteers helped Sweet tend to the school garden, but once the school year started in August, students took over. “Students from all grades have asked to help during recess, from watering the plants to weeding the garden beds. They take any opportunity to work in the garden,” she said.
The crops were harvested in the fall, including a haul of 50 pumpkins. Students who worked in the garden took home vegetables, and every TK student was able to bring home a mini pumpkin. “By working in the garden, the kids get to see the whole process up close,” Sweet said.
Woodland Elementary Kindergarten Teachers Monique Montiel and Kelly Seigal maintain a small raised bed in which TK and Kindergarten students watch plants grow. “The students plant seeds, water, and observe plants grow, then they have the opportunity to harvest the vegetables,” Montiel said.
“Children learn by doing, and one of the most important things they learn in the school garden is how to be a part of a community,” said Student Supervision Assistant Michelle Erickson, who also serves as PTA vice president for Victoria Elementary. “The students get a sense of pride, of responsibility, for the garden and the school. They take care of the garden like teachers take care of their classroom,” she said.
To make the garden even more inviting, Victoria’s PTA is working with the district to create an outdoor reading and reflection area. The space has benches for students to rest on, and the PTA is hoping a mural will add to the beauty of the garden.
Thanks to the recent Love Our Schools Day event, volunteers spruced up gardens in need of revitalization at California Elementary, Davis Magnet, Eastbluff Elementary, Killybrooke Elementary, Lincoln Elementary, Newport Heights Elementary, Sonora Elementary, Whittier Elementary and Wilson Elementary. Having now been weeded, mulched, and otherwise prepared, these gardens are ready for students to benefit from. “Our garden needed a lot of help,” said Killybrooke Principal Laura Taylor. “I’m excited to see what happens next,” she added.
With California’s moderate climate, schools with refreshed gardens have several options for winter planting.