Growth potential: Garden club teaches Northwood students about nature

Gardening gloves on and clippers in hand, members of the Northwood Elementary School gardening club were ready to get to work.

The fourth graders spread out in the school courtyard garden on Tuesday, a hot late September afternoon. As the garden reached the end of the growing season, dead flower buds had to be cut off, hill plants trimmed back and bushes trimmed.

The work was hard. But for the garden club it was just another responsibility for the natural property that has been tended since last year.

“I love animals and when I saw so much rubbish I thought it would harm the animals,” said Jon Kelley, a fourth grader. “I’ve learned that gardening is about much more than just protecting animals.”

In an effort to educate students about the outdoors and the joys of gardening, Northwood has offered the Garden Club to students for the past four years. Students sign up as third graders and clean up the yard in the spring before the growing season. Along the way, they learn about proper garden care and learn how plants, insects, birds and small animals thrive together to create a balanced ecosystem.

Most importantly, students have the opportunity to make a difference on their planet within their own school community.

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“Ever since I was a little girl I’d been helping my grandmother plant and prune, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn more about nature,” said fourth grader Jasmine Smith.

The garden club is the brainchild of Ellen Paris, a longtime consultant at Northwood who retired in 2020, and local gardener Linda Murray. They had met in a masters gardening class and decided together to help Northwood reclaim an outdoor courtyard in the center of the school.

The space had pathways through garden beds, an outdoor study pavilion, a small pond, and other natural features. But it needed attention to bring back its natural beauty.

“We want this to be an area that needs attention, that they can use to develop and appreciate nature over the long term,” Murray said.

With the help of the school’s parent-teacher organization and a multitude of volunteers, they planted flowers and shrubs with many perennials that come back year after year. The group built raised bed gardens for vegetables. A butterfly garden loaded with milkweed to support the insects was created, Murray said.

In 2018, the garden club opened for third and fourth grade students.

“We wanted to make it so that the students who helped plant the vegetables in the spring can see it in the fall when they go back to school,” Murray said.

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After the pandemic disrupted the schedule, club organizers regrouped and got students back involved. They clean the garden in the spring and plant the raised beds.

“We were surprised by the interest. We also knew that many hands make the job easier to keep the yard neat, trimming, weeding, etc.,” said Paris. “It’s fun to see the students’ excitement when they see their work benefiting so many, especially in the growing season – they loved getting tomatoes.”

Since the beginning of the school year, they have met every Tuesday after school to do gardening. They picked the tomatoes, collards, lettuce, radishes, and other items planted in the spring.

The children learned how to use water from the rain barrel in the garden. They have spotted creatures ranging from butterflies to birds to two tortoises and have made the garden their home.

“We want the kids to understand how important it is to have a habitat for monarch butterflies, bees and all the other creatures,” Murray said. “Over the years, many students have gone home and started their own container gardens.”

All children joined the association for different reasons. Fourth grader Emily Porter was interested in gardens and wanted to do more for the environment.

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“My mother always has a garden and I like trying to help with it. I always thought that people who litter and stuff like that were so bad,” she said.

On Tuesday, that meant making sure all the plant beds were trimmed, weeded and cleaned up before Northwood’s fall break began in mid-October.

They knew they had to be careful.

“Some of the things might be small trees that are just beginning to sprout. If you pull everything, there will be no nature,” said fourth grader Timothy Burton.

All afternoon they swarmed around the garden, working hard to uproot dead flowers and withered leaves. They found weeds and dug them up.

Once everything was cut, the waste was loaded into wheelbarrows or bins for disposal.

The garden club activities will come to an end in the coming weeks until the next group of students arrive in spring to start all over again. But for this year’s participants, their work will have made a difference.

“I wanted to join this club because I think it’s going to help the world get a lot better,” said Mya Smith, a fourth grader.

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