Gwinnett school garden sows seeds for community growth

Gardens4GrowingCommunity founder Tixie Fowler in the garden.

Credit: Karen Huppertz for the AJC

Credit: Karen Huppertz for the AJC

Gardens4GrowingCommunity founder Tixie Fowler in the garden.

Students at Summerour Middle School crouch down, peering between the leaves to look for peppers ready for harvest. But the source of their bounty isn't found during a field trip to a local farm. Instead, students are reaping the rewards of their new school garden.

The idea started with a newly constructed middle school in Norcross, a desire to get kids excited about science and the environment, and a passionate group of volunteers led by Norcross resident Tixie Fowler.

Fowler said Summerour's edible schoolyard takes advantage of school grounds traditionally grassed over. In this case, the grounds are turned into outdoor classrooms and opportunities to teach urban farming concepts. Starting with new construction and basically a blank canvas, Fowler saw an opportunity to plant with purpose. Instead of planting ornamental shrubs, plant blueberries instead.

The edible schoolyard concept was founded 20 years ago in Berkeley, Calif., by Alice Waters, who strove to "start a garden and build a teaching kitchen that could become tools for enriching the curriculum and life of the school community."

The Edible Schoolyard Project has grown from the idea of teaching fractions in the kitchen to make math interactive to an academy for training educators to create sustainable education programs.

Summerour Principal Dorothy Jarrett was on-board with the program from the beginning. But as they learned more, Fowler and Jarrett knew the program's sustainability would depend on managing it year-round. How would the garden survive holidays and summers when teachers and students are not frequently on campus? The answer: to involve the entire community.

Fowler recruited Norcross Citizens Police Academy alumni as well as Sustainable Norcross and local church organization volunteers. Along with donations by Terry Sutton of Cascade Springs Forestry, and with the help of Tony Gobert of Gwinnett Tech's Sustainable Urban Agriculture program, Summerour's garden began to take root.

In addition to donating some of his crew's labor, Sutton's firm salvaged lumber, asphalt, concrete, retaining walls and benches from the old middle school site being demolished next to Summerour's new construction. He repurposed these materials to build terraces, walkways and garden beds on the new site.

Gwinnett County Public Schools donated grading, wood chips and a hose bib for irrigation. Sutton and Fowler are introducing biointensive farming, a centuries-old method practiced in Europe and tailored in the U.S., to teach ways to grow food in small spaces with less water and greater soil fertility.

They're partnering with Gobert to develop small-scale food production that integrates economic profitability and environmental stewardship. Using concepts from Gwinnett Tech's horticulture program, students will have the chance to intern in the gardens, developing hands-on experience in the fundamentals of plant production and marketing.

Phase 1, located between the newly constructed middle school and athletic fields, began with four raised beds and "Square Foot Gardening" techniques in what is now known as the Learning Garden. Incorporating Gwinnett County Public School AKS (Academic Knowledge and Skills) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)-based curriculum, students and teachers planted "seeder plants."

These included peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, watermelon, okra, cantaloupe and sweet potatoes -- all plants ultimately providing seeds for next spring's planting season. Down the slope from these beds are snap peas, kale and Swiss chard, along with a butterfly garden.

Students, teachers and volunteers have been harvesting produce all summer. Some food went home with those participating, and some became the first homemade salsa in the consumer sciences classroom. Students are not only learning when and how to plant, but they're also learning how to determine space needed for planting, nutrients needed for crops and much more.

"It's important the gardens do more than teach science," Fowler said. "These students will learn math, stormwater management and basic engineering skills. The Art Club is making kinetic sculptures, and there are even victory gardens proposed for when the kids are studying World War II in social studies. We're also planning annual plant sales and a small farmer's market so they can learn business skills at the same time."

In addition to the first four beds, Summerour has received a three-year Learning Garden resource grant through the Captain Planet Foundation, funded by the Turner Foundation. Teachers are provided with hands-on training, curriculum aligned to national standards, lesson kits filled with supplies, a fully equipped garden cooking cart and a summer garden management intern. This fall, these four beds will be home to broccoli and lettuce, as well as plants that attract pollinators such as butterflies and bees.

The remaining beds have been sown with cover crops such as clover, Austrian field peas and Hairy Vetch, as well as rye and wheat. They're planted primarily to enhance soil fertility while encouraging biodiversity and wildlife.

Students are excited and proud of what they're accomplishing. Sixth-grader Jennifer Price was scheduled to spend three hours on a Saturday morning to earn extra credit in her science class. Three hours turned into seven hours as Price became immersed in the new garden, working alongside Gwinnett Master Gardener Jean Harrison, a program volunteer. A week or so later, Price caught up with Fowler in the garden again and announced she now knows what she wants to be when she grows up: an agricultural engineer.

Phase II is the beginning of a forestry classroom. With programs and resources offered by Gwinnett Clean & Beautiful, students will explore stormwater management, erosion control, forest revitalization and, with Sutton's support, invasive plant management. About 20 members of Summerour's Junior Leadership Corps spent one Saturday picking up trash in the forest between the school and a nearby apartment complex. Not only did they improve the appearance of the forest bed, but their efforts also went a long way toward making the area safer.

Phase III will be a pollinator meadow planted curbside along the school's drive. The meadow likely will attract honeybees and provide future plants for sale to the community.

Fowler has high hopes for Phase IV, consisting of a strip of land between Summerour Middle and a small vacant house next door along Beaver Ruin Road. "The Little House," as it's called, will be owned by the city of Norcross in partnership with the Latin American Association. The organization provides immigration legal services, English classes, emergency assistance and computer literacy courses in Spanish, among other services.

Fowler and Alex Villasana, pastor of Christos Community Church, will share the space with the LAA, providing garden-related cultural programming for the Latino community. The house also could provide storage space for gardening tools.

Fowler envisions this land as a communal garden, a mini farm that implements the biointensive practices being taught in the nearby learning garden. Summerour parents and neighboring residents could manage, plant and harvest the land, addressing the challenge of a sustainable program.

And here is where Fowler's vision truly blossoms. Calling her soon-to-be nonprofit Gardens4GrowingCommunity, Fowler sees this middle school garden bringing the community together to share knowledge and learn. She believes the urban garden program can help parents overcome a shyness often associated with cultural differences, encouraging those parents to become more engaged in the school and their children's academics. She also envisions the garden enabling the large minority community to share their agricultural and culinary heritage while, at the same time, learning to assimilate with the local culture.

"We're off to a great start," Fowler said. "But [we're] really excited for next summer, when we'll have programming in place so people from all over the world who now live here in Norcross will be sharing recipes, canning vegetables and working side by side to grow fresh food for their families."

Examples of progress are already happening. A few volunteers were tending to the garden recently when one of the neighbors wandered over, requesting available peppers. Fowler and the neighbor began discussing the crops. As the conversation progressed, Fowler learned new ways to use those fresh peppers and, in return, Fowler shared tips on preparing fried-green tomatoes.

Gardens4GrowingCommunity plans to create a model – and a template – for other public schools in Gwinnett County. Norcross Elementary already has six beds planted. Meadowbrook High School is getting started on its own edible learning garden.

"When people grow their own food locally, it creates a healthy community as well as healthy bodies," Fowler said. "We want to get everyone outside in the garden and in the forest, learning from each other and growing in more ways than one."