Growing the next generation of gardeners at Coles Elementary School

By Julie Parker-Dickerson

Each year the oldest sibling in each family receiving a vegetable seedling for their home garden.

″42, 43...There are 43 tomatoes!″ ″I see a strawberry! There's another one!″ These expressions of joy and accomplishment come from the children participating in the school garden program at Coles Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia. Coles Elementary School Garden has nine different garden areas, including a pollinator section added this past spring. Featured garden themes include: A shade plant collection, the five senses, Jack and the Beanstalk, Peter Rabbit, pizza, sunflowers, fruit and herbs, and a three sisters garden. It's hard to believe that this endeavor began with a barren grassy schoolyard just two years ago.

Teacher and garden coordinator Ramona Richardson played a crucial role the construction of a series of raised beds and in-ground gardens that facilitate learning for over 500 students. The student body has actively participated since the garden's inception in 2011. For many of the youth participating, this is the first time they have had a positive interaction with nature. ″A substantial portion of our students live in trailers or townhouses,″ comments Richardson. ″Our school garden provides many of them with their first experience with growing food.″

Students at Coles Elementary come from over 63 countries and speak 39 languages, making multiculturalism a common thread in all subject areas. Hearing impaired students throughout the county also attend Coles and are integrated into the regular elementary school program as much as possible. One of the theme gardens is ″cultural crops,″ which has played a role in fostering acceptance and finding common ground for students. In 2012, students planted staple crops from countries around the world, providing opportunities to learn about Italy, Spain, Mexico, Portugal, El Salvador, and Ireland. The school nurse helps to identify and distribute some of the harvested vegetables to families in need; a portion of the harvest is also donated to the local homeless shelter.

With support from both the National Gardening Association's Subaru Healthy Sprouts Garden Grant and Toyota, the garden at Coles Elementary has transformed the lives of the young student gardeners. With half of the time students spend in the garden dedicated to collaborative projects, the program has seen a noticeable increase in academic achievement, environmental awareness, improved nutritional attitudes, volunteerism, and a host of other improvements for students, parents, and community members. Recently the Coles Elementary School Garden was honored for the second year in a row with the Virginia Naturally Award, given to Coles in recognition of its efforts in supporting environmental conservation and stewardship. Coles has also been awarded the North America Butterfly Association's Butterfly Garden Certification and is registered as a Monarch Waystation.

The National Gardening Association has been providing educational grants to school and youth programs since 1982. With generous support from individual donors to the National Gardening Association, along with grant funding support from foundations and corporate partners, NGA has been able to provide over 10,000 grants to school garden programs. Please help us to continue to support great programs like Coles Elementary School Garden. Just five dollars can help open the doors to the transformative power of school gardens to children across the country.

Plant the seeds for the next generation of gardeners. Please consider a generous donation to the National Gardening Association

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