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Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Celebrate Gardening

The pollinator garden at Estes Hills Elementary School (EHES) reveals abundant shoulder-high bee balm with red and purple blossoms. The sprawling strawberry patches at McDougle Middle School (MMS) rival a corner of pick-your-own gardens, and the garden at Carrboro High School (CHS) is so successful that it requires multiple students to sell the produce at the Farmers’ Markets in town. At many CHCCS schools, at least one cultivated garden claims a green space where students, parents and staff grow flowers, herbs, or vegetables. To explore the range of gardens in CHCCS is to encounter magnificent creativity, expertise and the concrete reflection of time and commitment from parents, staff and community members.

From “Last Child in the Woods” to “Your Brain on Nature,” there are plenty of arguments to convince parents and educators of the critical place outdoor education holds in the healthy development of children. One of the most immediate and flexible ways to launch children into nature exploration is to provide garden space with opportunities to observe the daily changes in plant and animal life.

Kathleen Eveleigh is the gifted specialist at EHES, and she has been a leader in the school garden community for years. “More teachers are taking outdoor education classes. In a time when data and testing drives so much of the success and failures of our schools, I am finding passion and love of learning in the outdoors in a way that goes beyond the four walls of the classroom.”

Estes fairy garden The multi-tiered approach at EHES addresses aspects from monarch butterflies and pollinator plant research to social supports through the creation of a fairy garden to the celebration of nutrition with an all-day Farmers Market. Eveleigh said teachers have been able to incorporate science and social studies standards, reading standards, writing standards and math standards into the school garden.

Eveleigh said of her first years at EHES, “One aspect of the garden project that I insisted on was that it would be an enrichment space for all.  In the past it was a space for gifted students to work, but I wanted all students in the school to be involved. I began to see teachers coming out with their students and planting small plants and watering the few things we could grow. The greatest thing that happened was some of our most fragile learners had great success in the garden. Children with no idea how to plant a flower were now watering and caring for their plants.”

The gardening passion and commitment at EHES is evident in a Parent Garden Committee with 30 members. Several volunteers from the Garden Club of Chapel Hill dedicate dozens of hours to the projects. Every class, all 500 students, spent multiple periods in the garden this year, for a total of 114 supervised sessions. Beyond the extensive pollinator and herb garden, a full vegetable garden was planted for the first time this year with financial help from an Annie’s Garden Grant. Parent Joanna Lee has been leading and organizing volunteers to both maintain and expand resources. She said, “The produce is grown entirely by students, harvested and labeled by students and goes home to children at Estes and TABLE.”    

“Gardening happens all year round, both indoors and out,” said Eveleigh. “The garden has grown from one garden to three and now includes a very complex bird feeding station and bird blind. We have worked with a Native American pumpkin grower to help students grow giant pumpkins, and a nationally acclaimed artist to grow and make our own indigo dyes.  Every aspect of the garden incorporates children and learning that ties directly to the standards. The children feel ownership with the garden and, most importantly, our community.”

Sustainability Director, Dan Schnitzer, has brought a new energy and attention to the development of school gardens since he was hired five years ago. “School gardens have been going on for a long time in this district, thanks to the hard work and dedication of parents and teachers,” he said. “The biggest change this year is the addition of Tony Mayer as the contracted School Garden Coordinator. The position allows for coordination and efficient use of funds and time as well as a connector, so the people running the gardens can learn from each other. Tony brings a phenomenal level of knowledge, both of horticulture and education.”

GES Massengale garden The history of CHCCS school gardening predates Schnitzer by decades. Two names emerge over and over, in conversations with people in the community: Bill Rucker and Sally Massengale. Rucker taught chemistry and horticulture at Chapel Hill High School in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, and he is often cited by former students as their “favorite teacher.” He celebrated horticulture in countless ways, and stories still circulate about his escapades. Students could earn extra credit by planting home gardens, and Rucker would then visit homes to grade the efforts.

Massengale first worked as a teaching assistant at Glenwood Elementary School (GES) and then taught as the science specialist from 1997 until her retirement in 2018. She incorporated nature education into much of her instruction. In the courtyard between buildings at GES, Massengale designed and supervised the creation of native plant sanctuary gardens, with reading benches and art, including a concrete gator stepping stone.

Mayer grew up in Chapel Hill and counts himself among Rucker’s devoted and grateful former students. In his current roles with CHCCS and his teaching position in horticulture and sustainability at Elon University, Mayer is aware of Rucker’s legacy still informing much of what he now does with young adults and children. Over the past 15 years, Mayer has studied medicinal plants in community college, then botany, and landscape design at North Carolina State University, and finally a masters’ degree in ecology at UNC. Mayer is working to develop a “garden based eco-pedagogy.”

But Schnitzer has only been able to fund Mayer for a part-time contract, and the consultation, oversight and collaborative tasks piling up for Mayer are daunting, because of the increasing interest in expanding and diversifying school gardens. Schnitzer said, “His combination of knowledge and skillset will enable us to bring the CHCCS school garden program to the forefront in the country. This all hinges on overcoming the challenge of finding partners to help us fund the position for multiple years.”  

MMS garden club For now, Mayer makes the rounds between schools as best he can. On a recent Tuesday, he met with social studies teacher, Steve Simmons, and his seventh grade Garden Club at McDougle Middle School (MMS). The students showed off their strawberry beds with great pride, many identifying that crop as their “favorite part” of Garden Club. Mayer introduced students to some of the medicinal, native plants growing amidst the familiar vegetables, explaining how they were used by indigenous people for millennia.

At Phoenix Academy High School (PAHS), math teacher, Willam Hales, oversees a vegetable garden planted along the edge of the parking lot shared with Lincoln Center.

When Hales joined PAHS three years ago, Schnitzer ran a weekly club that worked with the garden. “When Dan became too busy, I inherited the garden last year,” Hales said.  “The PAHS science teacher, Taylor Bryant, had her classes plant seed trays during the early spring which we put in the greenhouse at Culbreth,” said Hales. “We are excited about the greenhouse's availability and using it to improve the community garden. The sad part is that most of the harvests take place after the students leave for the summer, so they don't get to see the end result of their efforts.”

Carrboro High School (CHS) boasts two separate gardening initiatives, both of which require significant time and labor. Environmental science teacher, Stefan Klackovich, said, “For four years, our Eco-Action Community garden at CHS has given students an opportunity to literally get their hands dirty, working on student-driven projects at their school. We research, experiment, build and collaborate. We grow food, eggs, flowers, relationships and leadership skills.” Klakovich said anyone who would like to find ways to support the garden programs to email him, sklakovich@chccs.k12.nc.us.

At the front and side of CHS, a native wildflower garden thrives, under the care of parent volunteer, Angela Clemmons and Klakovich, but with guidance from the “brain trust” of Mayer, as well as Johnny Randall from the N.C. Botanical Gardens, and his wife, Libby Thomas.

CHS garden crew Clemmons said, “The wildflower garden in front of Carrboro High has turned into a gorgeous, lush flowering meadow. Native specimens like baptisia, blue star and butterfly milkweed have become established, and the garden has been in bloom since April. Since they are native plants, Carrboro has not had to water this garden – it thrives solely on what nature provides via rain and humidity. In progress is the front ‘reforestation’ project – a multiyear effort that is transforming the grass yard into a natural meadow, fulfilling a general vision in avoiding water waste; after all, Carrboro High was the state’s first LEED certified school!”

 “The front garden is the one with the most visibility,” said Clemmons. “We still have some PR work to do in convincing people that we aren’t growing a giant weed bed – this is not a traditional flower bed and it can look overgrown at times. But everything in there is doing its thing.” Clemmons’ two children attend CHS, but she said, “My hope is to stick around past their graduation. I enjoy spending time with kids while we all pull weeds. They get to leave their legacy in a unique way via plants!”

Mayer said, “All of my passion for gardening comes from Bill Rucker’s horticulture class. All the work I’m doing now with CHCCS is coming full circle, back from my heart.”

Contact Mayer at chccsgardens@gmail.com if you'd like more information about how to support a garden!

 Many other schools have created wonderful gardens. Look for more garden stories in the fall!