Elementary garden has much to offer Nashville sixth graders

    Teacher Twyla Nichols (right) presents an Arkansas Grown sign to Wes Ward, the state's secretary of agriculture.

    By Terrica Hendrix
    News-Leader staff

    Nashville Elementary School students will now learn about the plant cycle and agriculture outside their classroom.

    “The Garden Lab will change science education for years to come at Nashville Elementary,” Principal Latito Williams said. “Students will have the opportunity to learn about the plant cycle and the importance of agriculture. It’s refreshing to watch the excitement in the students’ faces as they chart the growth and progress of their plants. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and provides ownership in their daily learning.”

    The idea of the Garden Lab began when “Blue and You for a Healthier Arkansas sponsored our annual Farm Day this past spring,” NES Teacher Twyla Nichols said.

    “Farm Day is a sixth grade tradition in conjunction with our local FFA. Normally it is a time for sixth graders to get a first hand experience of what FFA is about with a focus on a farmer’s life – animals/equipment/crops. Through Blue and You, the focus became more of a Farm to Table approach – the need for honey bees, chicken and egg production, physical activity and square foot gardening. The students rotated through stations and learned the healthy benefits of those things. Instead of Farm Day the event became the 2016 Farm to Table Summit,” Nichols said.

    “During the last week of the 2015-16 school year, Vanessa Keaster [counselor] and I were brainstorming ways to promote a healthier lifestyle to our students with the Blue and You team [Sarah Powell, Donna Webb and Debra Bolding],” Nichols said.

    Nichols was “impressed with what the students had learned about square foot gardening during the Summit.”

    After discussing it, the team decided a garden would be a great way to educate NES students about healthy eating, help them gain experience gardening on a small but beneficial scale, and support the newly adopted science standards.  It was determined that the start up financing for six raised 4×4 beds was available through the same grant which sponsored the 2016 Farm to Table Summit.  

    The 2015-16 sixth graders chose the current site for the garden.

    Over the summer, Debra Bolding and her team of Red Dirt Master Gardeners started installing the beds, irrigation system and the pavers.

    “The students and I took over the last week of August. Master Gardener Rita Rector met with me one afternoon  and shared her notes from the Square Foot Gardening class she had taught the previous spring. From her notes, a three day Farm To Table conference at HSU, and lots of research, I determined what and how we would plant our first gardens. Rector had said the first and last frost dates were the most important dates for gardeners. I started looking for things that could be planted and harvested before the first frost on Nov. 17.

    “Gardening is fairly new to me,” Nichols confessed, “so much research was required. I chose broccoli, green and red cabbage, carrots, radishes, and sweet peas. I also thought it would enhance the learning experience if each class period planted different varieties of those vegetables. I sorted the varieties among the classes and had the students use a calendar to determine if we could plant and harvest before the first frost. They first had to be taught how to read the seed packets. Then we planted everything Sept. 7.”

    Student Dylan Finley told the team that his grandfather planted broccoli every year, “so we invited May to come help us. Mr. Chester and Deloris May assisted us in planting the first bed. After the first day of planting, it was apparent we needed a potting shed to hold our tools. Terry Pratt, a Nashville bus driver and carpenter, agreed to build a potting shed similar to the one at the Nashville Demonstration Organic Garden. Debra Bolding had the material list, and we quickly established there was enough grant money left to build the potting shed. The roofing material on the shed was repurposed tin from the old visitors’ stands at the stadium. Saving the roofing cost, we were able to purchase lumber to install benches. The benches will provide an area for demonstrations, presentations, and reflection – an outdoor classroom. While the garden beds will only be used by the sixth grade sciences classes, the outdoor classroom can be utilized by any grade or subject.”

    Nichols explained that her students “are collecting garden data by measuring the growth of the plants, determining which varieties yield the best harvest, monitoring the watering, rainfall, and temperature. We will eventually input the data into charts and graphs and report our results. Seeing first hand how long it takes for enough produce to grow verses how quickly it can be eaten has opened our eyes to the importance of not wasting food. We all have a new appreciation for farmers.”

    Through their study of the Human Impact on the Environment, the students learned that Arkansas ranks high in food insecurity. “Many of our seniors need to choose between medicine or food. The students problem solved on their own that if they continue to eat healthy food all their lives  then maybe when they are old they will not need medicines; therefore, they will not be faced with choosing between buying medicine or eating. ‘Smart kids.'”

    Recently, Nichols’ students harvested the radishes. A student named Arely shared her favorite way to eat radishes was in posole – a Mexican style of beef stew. “So, we made posole to enjoy with our radishes, Nichols said.

    Other repurposed items that have saved the school money include the Garden Lab signpost which is repurposed from another campus; the large black pots that will become herb gardens this spring are repurposed from the high school. The school has purchased two garden wagons, hand tools, harvesting baskets, and frost bed covers.

    The bicycle art installations were donations to the school. “We would love to have a birdbath if any one has one to give away,” Nichols said.

    The garden beds have been growing for about five weeks now.

    Phase one of the garden included beds, pavers, trellises, potting shed, soil, mulch, mums, pansies, hoses, in ground irrigation pipe, seeds, plants, material for the benches, and garden sign.

    Phase two is still in the “dream stage, but we would like to have strawberry towers, herb and butterfly gardens, data collecting, and reporting laptops…and sometime, we would love a paved walking track around the playground,” Nichols added.

    Phase two will also include a computerized weather station which will monitor all elements of the weather, and the data will be accessible from any computer using the school’s login information. All grades (even on the other Nashville campuses) could study the weather with this data, she said.

    “I couldn’t be more proud of the development of the Garden Lab,” Williams explained. “We are thankful for receiving the Blue and You for a Healthier Arkansas grant to fund the project. We have had lots of community support and volunteer activities to assist us in getting the project up and running. Debra Bolding, Sarah Powell, and Donna Webb brought the project idea to us. Twyla Nichols and Vanessa Keaster have done an amazing job of turning this idea into a reality,” Williams said.