IF THE WORDS “edible schoolyard” bring on joyous visions of ripe tomatoes and juicy berries, you must live somewhere else.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we tactfully divide our school-year growing seasons into categories that range from “young kale” to “overwintered kale.” The garden at my children’s school, while joyous in its own way, was more memorable for piney rosemary — hardy to 15 degrees! — and sour green sorrel.
The gorgeous raised garden beds, maintained and hand-watered by hardworking volunteers, did produce abundant crops — but generally after the school year ended. Summer harvests went to a local food bank, a related cause that serves the same community.
I was thrilled to send my kids to a school with any kind of gardening program, having graduated from Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Berkeley some maddening years before Alice Waters established her famous edible schoolyard there.
Research from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2014 estimated roughly 1 in 4 public elementary schools had a garden. That’s a remarkable figure, but the programs have vastly diverse structures and funding, especially in a national climate with an abundance of standardized exams and drought-level reservoirs of money and time.
Berkeley’s garden program is a deep-rooted success, working with a paid staff as well as volunteers, offering lots of hands-on cooking and lessons that are deeply integrated into the curriculum. There’s also that climate, which allows California kids to squeeze lemonade from real rather than metaphorical lemons. Did I mention the wood-fired pizza oven?
Still, we have plenty going for us here in Seattle. The year I volunteered in our elementary school garden, students worked in short time bursts to examine tangles of wriggling red worms, learn about soil and compost, and draw and label plant parts in their garden journals. They used watercolors to paint impressively realistic lavender foliage (English lavender thrives in Zone 8B), and planted tiny seeds that eventually emerged into the light — OK, so it was indoor grow lights.
(At least they had other school-sponsored paths to nature, such as watching salmon eggs grow into fry before releasing the fish into local creeks. Take that, Berkeley!)
I was constantly awed how the best teachers were able to keep the attention of these youngsters when they worked in their journals, how they could command the room with kindness rather than stern admonitions. I didn’t have those talents, and found the job so much easier any time we could focus on the garden part of the school garden, studying in the form of touching and smelling and tasting.
While we didn’t have citrus trees, most kids were startlingly fond of the sorrel, a tangy green leaf with an acidic bite. It’s just the sort of food people think children will hate, but we’d ask them to divide each leaf into several pieces so that the bed wasn’t denuded before the next group arrived.
In our final garden class of the year, we prepared salad with each class. I felt a touch cynical, as most of our own harvest, sorrel aside, would have taken the form of microgreens and herbs. In Seattle in May, full-size carrots and zucchinis come from the store.
And yet, the event was a raging success, by far the year’s best. There were no issues paying attention at my volunteer stand; bright-eyed students read recipes, measured ingredients and shook up their own salad dressings in covered jars. At another table, they cranked a spiralizer and cut zucchinis into ribbons. They downed those greens with the sort of approval ratings usually bestowed on birthday sheet cakes.
We have our own raised beds at home, with all the sorrel my own kids could want, but they still talk about that final garden session in school. In my memory, the entire class is so happy and proud, the kids appearing at home amid those spring seedlings preparing to flower. In retrospect, that seems like the real harvest.
Jam-Jar French dressing
¼ clove garlic
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons white or red wine vinegar
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Peel and finely chop ¼ of a clove of garlic (realistically, students will wind up peeling and chopping an entire clove and then just using a pinch).
2. Put the chopped garlic, mustard, wine vinegar and olive oil into a jam jar with a pinch of salt and pepper.
3. Put the lid on the jar (make sure it’s screwed on tightly!), and shake well.
Adapted from jamieoliver.com