Summer 2011 - Feature
The Constant Gardener
By Jason Black
“There was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods...” —Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth
She motions for me to lean down and smell the clump of fresh soil cupped in her hand.
“Smell that?” she opines, her eyes beaming with pride. “That’s good earth.”
And she’s right. It does smell good, rich and moist and fragrant like freshly ground coffee bursting with nutrients.
Gazing out over the triangular plot of land on ‘Iolani’s Lower School campus that makes up the one-fifth acre of organic garden, an observer easily sees that there’s a lot of love and planning that goes into its care. Just then, a warm breeze blows off the slopes of Diamond Head and rustles through the green leaves of the tall, healthy bean stocks. Atop each one, sits its very own plastic gallon juice container that waves softly in the wind and serves as a marker for each student’s plant. It’s a beautiful, life-affirming sight.
As science teacher for ‘Iolani’s own fourth, fifth and sixth graders, Ellen Gaylor knows a thing or two about what makes for good soil and a bountiful spring harvest. Over the past 23 years, she’s been teaching the lifecycle of plants using the garden as the focal point of her “Planned Life” curriculum. During her long career (first as a kindergarten teacher and then in elementary school science), she’s always taught with robust energy and passion to inspire the students, generation after generation. Now, after 40 years of esteemed service, Gaylor is retiring at the end of this school year. Upon retirement, she’s looking forward to traveling a bit and spending some quality time with friends and family on the mainland.
Alisha Churma ’19 and Hailey Wong ’19 stopped by the garden after school to check on their plants.
Today, she’s all business, walking me through the finer points of growing beans by the bushel. In the past, her students have tried to plant sunflowers and corn before landing on beans because as she puts it, “beans are guaranteed” to yield. As she explains, the whole process from seedling to harvested plant takes approximately five months. Starting from scratch in January, the students clear their tiny plot of rocks, sticks and other undesirables. Next, in February, they seed the land with a generous donation of genetically enhanced bean kernels from the University of Hawaii Seed Program. Finally, in April, each student harvests around three to five pounds of ripe and ready-to-eat beans. They cart as much as they can carry home to mom and dad for meals, and the remainder gets donated to The Institute for Human Services, a local homeless shelter right here in Honolulu.
Even though Gaylor’s passionate about her contribution, she’s equally very modest about her own accomplishments. “Personally, I don’t consider myself an environmentalist. I’m just doing my part for people and for the planet.”
Fair enough. But, as you can imagine, the children get super excited. They love rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands, arms and feet dirty. “They’d love to come out here every recess,” laughs Gaylor. “So we let them visit the garden after school so they can head home afterward and clean up. It’s fun for all.”
One of her students, Megan Tagmi ’19 wholeheartedly agrees. She was one of the students who delivered beans to the Institute for Human Services.
“I really enjoyed going to the garden” Tagami beams. “After school and during science classes, we’d pull out the stubborn weeds and poured water from our juice bottles onto our one-foot by one-foot garden space. We were rewarded after spring break with ripe, green, juicy surprises stretching high to the sky, twisting and turning around the pole. It made fourth grade science the best year ever.”
Along the way, the secret ingredient to a healthy, successful, spring season crop is fresh compost. The kids bring in kitchen scraps and yard waste that they’ve collected from home and dump them into the deep green plastic compost bins that line the tight field rows in the garden. Peering inside, you can see the process in action. Roaches, worms and other bugs come to eat the discarded dinner scraps and yard waste, and the byproduct is nutrient rich compost that’s full of nitrogen for the plants. It’s all a part of the natural lifecycle. And, most importantly, this simple process means that the garden itself is organic.
Inspiring lessons in life cycles and the earth’s resources, ‘Iolani’s organic garden grows on the Diamond Head side of campus.
Beyond the regular life science curriculum, the students learn a few life lessons as well while cultivating their very own small plot of “good earth.” They learn ownership and responsibility. They also learn cooperation and the importance of sharing their harvest with their neighbor or those in the community who may be less fortunate than they are. Ultimately, she explains, it makes them feel good to contribute their time and energy to creating something and that’s why the experience is so special. “Really, my goal is to get them to start their own garden at home,” Gaylor says.
That vision may have already taken root. Many students hold the life lessons close to their hearts. The garden becomes more than a speck of earth for vegetables, flowers and plants.
“I think that the garden was a great way to learn,” comments fellow student Chloe Loughridge ’19. “Instead of reading and writing, we got to do something. Even though it was hard work to weed and to water, it was very rewarding even just to get one bean. At the end, your bean plant seems to have become somewhat like your best friend.”
But how can a fresh home herb garden hope to compete with the rigors of modern day student life?
Nowadays, kids move at such a fast pace. They’re constantly busy with homework, sports, after-school activities, as well as bombarded with technology. Staying connected with friends and family is instantaneous and entertainment is immediate and everywhere. So how does working in a humble organic garden compete with all that school workload and stimulation?
“They can see, feel, smell and share the results of their effort and hard work,” Gaylor adds. “It’s a hands-on, practical experience that they can engage with their five senses. It’s very exciting and I’m sure the experience of growing a garden with their friends and classmates lasts in their memories.”
And so it will.
Comments from Readers
Learning in the Lower School garden with Ms. Gaylor was one of my favorite experiences during my time at 'Iolani. From making our own compost from food leftovers to harvesting and eating the food we grew ourselves, we not only learned about the value of hard work, but had a lot of fun. Working in the garden even became a favorite afterschool pastime for many of us.
With childhood obesity on the rise, it is increasingly important for students to learn about where food comes from, as well as basic nutrition. Hopefully, the school garden movement that is gaining momentum here in Hawaii as well as across the nation will eventually allow many more students to learn (and have fun) in a school garden.
Check out the Kokua Hawaii Foundation's AINA IS program to learn about how you can be a part of the school garden movement!
Sara Tsukamoto '07