NFI’s Work with After-School Garden Clubs: MacFarland Middle School in Petworth

November 3, 2010

Author: Neighborhood Farm Initiative

Category: General News

The most exciting part of the Garden Club at MacFarland Middle School is when a student asks the question, “Can you eat this?” We will be in the middle of weeding and watering, and everyone stops what they’re doing and huddles around. Some students are brave and ready to eat, others hesitant, waiting to see what happens to the front line of tasters when I say yes.

Yes to the ripe cherry tomatoes, eaten excitedly and confirmed “yummy.” Yes to the hot peppers, eaten by one brave girl on a dare who afterwards chugged water while her classmates cheered. Yes to the herbs, little corners of leaves nibbled by the curious, or made into olfactory bouquets, taken home to their parents to add to spaghetti sauce. Yes to the beets, cooked and brought the next week, and eaten with some hesitation and unenthusiastic, but still positive, response. Yes to the carrots, split into samples and eaten right there on the spot.

These fifteen sixth graders and two eighth graders manage eight four feet-by-three feet raised bed gardens once a week after school. I say they manage it, because although technically I’m leading the group, they’re the ones doing all the work (and sometimes reminding me what to do). They vie for jobs, just as eager to harvest as to weed and dig. And they know why they do things like weeding, watering, and, as we approach the end of the season, turning the soil and adding dead leaves.

On the first day I was impressed with how much they already knew about taking care of plants. Many of them had gardened with their parents or grandparents, and they already knew that plants need sun, air, water, and healthy soil. (And worms. Definitely worms.) I’ve heard horror stories about DC public schools without science programs, and while I’m not familiar with their school’s program, these kids sure are retaining — and applying — what they learn in class.

They’re also wildly excited about gardening. While I tried to start off the club’s first meeting with name games and ice breakers, one girl said to me, “Ms. Kat, can we just garden?” followed by cheers from the group. Each week, I can barely keep the group in line as we walk through the school, and once we get outside the kids run to the beds, digging and weeding and picking vegetables and flowers before I even have time to ask, “Who wants to do what?”

But why wouldn’t they? Gardens, even ones as confined and modest as our raised beds, can reveal Amazon-sized mysteries. Gigantic electric-green and -blue caterpillars appear from between the weeds. Flowering herbs give off unusual and sweet smells. Worms lurch from the soil. Lifting the branches of lush plants reveals the vegetables we are so used to seeing chopped up in salads and sauces.

So many people want to start a garden and grow their own food, but never quite get around to it, imagining themselves burdened with work, or overwhelmed by the diverse information yielded by one internet search. If you find yourself in this position, you should stop by MacFarland Middle School’s Garden Club on Thursday evenings. I know a few kids who will be able to explain to you all you need to know.

-Kat Bawden

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